Premier League Playback: Alarming signs emerge for Chelsea

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Before you read this, remember, Chelsea still has a four-point lead atop the Premier League and they play Tottenham Hotspur in an FA Cup semifinal at Wembley Stadium this Saturday.

[ MORE: Mourinho’s master plan ]

Remember that when reading Antonio Conte‘s damning verdict of his team following their 2-0 defeat at Manchester United on Sunday which breathed new life into the PL title race after two defeats in four PL games for Chelsea.

“It won’t be easy because I think Tottenham are now the best team. They are in good form and they have a lot of enthusiasm. They are feeling the possibility to write history and it is important for us to know this,” Conte said.

“We lost two games but those games were totally different. Against Crystal Palace, we didn’t deserve to lose. Today we deserved to lose the game. We didn’t play a good game and United deserved to win. We have to think there are six finals from now until the end of the season. The league is open and we have a 50% [opportunity] to win the league. It will be good to finish on top of the table and, if so, it means we deserve this. Otherwise we must clap another team.”

Is it just me, or did that statement from Conte seem a little extreme in the aftermath of a potentially damaging defeat at Old Trafford?

[ MORE: 3 things we learned | Player ratings

As soon as he uttered the words “Tottenham are now the best team” in the press conference room at Old Trafford you could hear journalists pounding away at their keyboards as eyes widened and others muttered ‘what the heck is he saying’ following Conte’s comments.

It wasn’t so much a concession that his Chelsea’s team are on the ropes for the final weeks of the season, but it was a warning sign of where this team is at.

Conte was right about Chelsea’s defeat at United. They didn’t deserve to win, or draw, and Jose Mourinho won the tactical battle fair and square as Ander Herrra has probably just allowed Eden Hazard to hop out of his back pocket and Chelsea’s makeshift defense couldn’t handle the pacy duo of Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard up front together.

[ LIVE: Stream every PL game live ]

It wasn’t rocket science from Mourinho, but it was brave and bold and was something a little different than most teams have done against Chelsea this season. Conte and his players will now have to prepare for teams playing two up front against them in their pivotal final six games of the season with their three center backs suddenly under more pressure than they have been since the switch to a 3-4-3 back in September.

Amid reports of a virus sweeping through Chelsea’s dressing room late last week, plus goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois getting injured in an NBA promo video (yes, you read that correctly) the Blues are having some adversity thrown at them. Add in club captain John Terry announcing he will leave Chelsea at the end of this season at the age of 36 to continue playing elsewhere, and a lot is happening right now at Stamford Bridge. Terry’s leadership and experience will no doubt be needed in the final weeks of the season to nudge Chelsea over the line.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

The mentality of this team is strong, as they’ve shown for most of the season and the vast majority of this squad showed that in the 2014-15 title-winning campaign too. Yet given the epic collapse most of these players were part of and the 10th place finish last season, there’s a lingering sense that Chelsea could crumble.

There’s no doubting Tottenham have the tougher schedule remaining but with Spurs winning seven games on the spin, unbeaten at home in the PL and going into an FA Cup semi against Chelsea brimming with confidence, the warning bells are starting to ring for Conte and Chelsea.

It’s time they woke up from this little slump and finish the job. If they don’t, Tottenham will nip in and take it all.


LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

This weekend was so much fun. On location at White Hart Lane, Old Trafford and the Riverside Stadium was the entire NBC Sports Soccer crew as the broadcast team from the USA flew across the pond to link up with everyone.

A great time was had by all, with plenty of laughs mixed in with long travel days, countless pitch-side interviews with some of the biggest names in the PL, plus behind-the-scenes Facebook lives with the gang and much, much more.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

With a studio, pitch-side desk and gantry at each stadium for Tottenham vs. Bournemouth, Man United vs. Chelsea and Middlesbrough vs. Arsenal, the annual trip to the UK delivered big time when it came to drama on the pitch and excitement off it.

Click play on the video at the top of this section to get a glimpse of what to expect in the “I Was There” PL Download special coming up on Wednesday, April 26th at 5:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

You won’t want to miss it.


TOP FOUR BATTLE IS ON

Wins for Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal and Everton mean the top four battle is well and truly on.

Things are getting tense and tight.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

Liverpool and Man United took care of business after watching Man City blow past Southampton 3-0 on Saturday as Vincent Kompany‘s return to full-fitness was a joy to watch. Suddenly Pep Guardiola‘s City look much more solid in defense and they remain just as lethal in attack.

We’ve spoken about Man United’s tactical beating of Chelsea and Mourinho will feel like his team now have a real chance of making the top four as they sit four points behind Man City and have a game in hand. Add in that the two Manchester clubs face each other next Thursday in the PL and the top four battle is set to intensify further.

Watching on nervously all weekend were Arsenal who beat a stubborn Middlesrbrough side 2-1 after switching to a 3-4-3 formation for the first time in 20 years under Wenger. Along with Everton’s fine form and Romelu Lukaku banging in the goals, there are five teams in the hunt for third and fourth place, even if the Toffees have played more games than anyone else and seem likely to finish seventh given their tough run-in.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

With Arsenal still to play Man United and Tottenham, plus Man City still to play Man United and United still to face Tottenham, things seem pretty set for Liverpool to finish in the top four a Jurgen Klopp‘s men have a kind run-in.

Yet, strange things happen at this time of the season and the top four race will no doubt go down to the wire.


END OF AN ERA AS JT CALLS TIME

As mentioned above, at the age of 36 Terry has decided to end his time at Chelsea after 19 seasons at the club. After coming through the youth ranks the captain of Chelsea will leave a huge void after 22 years in west London.

[ MORE: What now for Terry? ]

Even though he’s missed most of this season through a combination of injury and not being able to usurp Gary Cahill, David Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta from a solid back three, Terry’s impact in the dressing room will still be key, especially in the run-in.

After all, he’s won 14 major honors at Chelsea, lifting 13 of them as captain.

Where does he go next? Reports suggest Major League Soccer, China or other options in the PL are emerging but for now let’s let the words of those who know him best honor a true Chelsea hero.

He will go down as one of the greatest center backs in world history, plus the greatest player in Chelsea’s history and one of England’s finest defenders.

As the banner simply says at Stamford Bridge: “JT. Captain. Leader. Legend.”

The last man standing of an incredible era for @chelseafc. What a pleasure to play with the greatest defender in the @premierleague history. In fact, I'd put him up with any defender in world football of any era. He led the club both on and off the pitch from the moment he made his debut. He set standards for everyone, whether it was demanding excellence in training, fighting for every win or respecting how fortunate we were to play for such a great club. He was, and is, a legend, not just for his talent but just as much for his desire to get the best out of himself and others around him. That's what made him the most successful captain in the club's history. Off the pitch a great friend to not just me but so many at the club and outside of it. The countless things I've seen JT do to help people outside of the game, things that not many see, are what defines him as a man. @johnterry.26 you deserve every accolade you get over the next weeks and beyond and I hope you get what you deserve and lift two massive trophies at the end of the season(just to add to the tally 😂). Whatever you do next I know everyone will respect your decision and I know that the Chels will always be your club. Absolute respect 💙💙👊👊#jt #captain #leader #legend

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From day one you've been a true Leader, when I first met you and didn't know who you were 🙈 ☺️ but said to me "welcome to chelsea" Thought you were a young player from the academy going on pre season tour 😂😂😂 Then I realized who you were from your first speech right before our first friendly game vs @celticfc . You've been carrying this team, this club for 22 years with the same passion, the same desire to win for @chelseafc and our fans. Proud to have been lead by the all time best defender of @premierleague and one of the very best in the world!!!! Thanks for the memories CAPTAIN LEGEND TERRY @johnterry.26 and all the very best for your next challenge. #leaderonandoffthepitch #legend #Goat #chelseafc #johnterry #blues #endofanera #whataneraitwas #winniiiiiiiiiing🏅🏆🏅🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆🏅🏆🏅🏆🏆🏆🏅🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆

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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

Dani Alves fires back at Diego Forlan

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After Neymar and Edinson Cavani’s penalty drama that has blown up over the last few days and potentially led to Neymar’s exclusion from the PSG squad this weekend, Uruguayan legend Diego Forlan went on sports radio in his home country to not just back his former international teammate Cavani, but also throw a pair of Brazilians under the bus.

Forlan obviously denounced Neymar’s role in the dispute, but he also picked out Neymar’s club and country teammate Dani Alves for favoring his countrymate.

[ MORE: Goalkeeping howler sees Bayern blow lead in draw ]

“What doesn’t make any sense is what Alves does, he doesn’t give the ball to Cavani and then gives it to Neymar as if he were his [explitive]. Cavani deserves respect. He has been scoring goals for years, taking penalties. There has to be respect. Neymar would not have done that with [Lionel] Messi. He didn’t want Cavani to take the penalty. He was like a little boy annoying him.”

Well, as you can imagine, Alves did not take kindly to being sucked into the fray, and fired back as a result. “I don’t know what match you were watching,” Alves wrote on Twitter, “but for your information, I didn’t take the ball away from any of my teammates. It was just the opposite, it was taken from me!

“And also for your information, the last penalty kick for PSG was mine. So shut your trap and stop making drama in my name.”

This whole situation has blown up more than most penalty disputes (which happen relatively often) likely due to the international affiliations. With the decades-old bad blood between Brazil and Uruguay, it’s no surprise that people are taking sides. Forlan swept up another Brazilian in the mix, and understandably he did not appreciate the cheap shot.

Premier League Preview: Leicester City vs. Liverpool

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  • Leicester City has won 2 straight home PL games vs Liverpool
  • Jamie Vardy has 5 goals in 3 PL games vs Liverpool
  • Liverpool leads the PL with 40 shots on target this season

Jamie Vardy is good to go for the Foxes as they welcome Liverpool to the King Power Stadium on Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 a.m. ET on NBC or live online via NBCSports.com).

These two teams matched up midweek in League Cup play, with Leicester City winning 2-0, and they did so without Vardy who missed out with a groin strain. He’s since recovered, and will likely play a part. Christian Fuchs and Leonardo Ulloa are also ready to go, with Fuchs back after an eye injury in training, while Ulloa took a knock to the head midweek but is ready to go.

The Foxes need a win in the worst way, as a loss would leave them with their joint-worst point total through the first six matches of a top flight season since 1994/95, the year they were relegated.

[ LIVE: Stream Premier League games

Liverpool, meanwhile, has issues of its own to sort out. They are winless in all competitions since August 27th, and on a larger scale, Jurgen Klopp is taking heat for having less points than Brendan Rodgers did through his first 73 league games of his Liverpool tenure.

The Reds are also facing a bit of injury trouble, with Dejan Lovren still out with back problems, while Joel Matip and Emre Can both suffered slight injuries in the midweek loss and are questionable for Saturday. Should all those miss out, the already leaky defense would prove even more porous.

What they’re saying

Jurgen Klopp on Liverpool chasing the ball: “We come too close together in the situation where the first ball is going after a throw-in and it means for the second ball we don’t have a good formation. We need to get more natural in these things because it’s not that difficult to be honest but it happens too often. Now we have to work and then it will be even more difficult to create something against us.”

Craig Shakespeare on Jamie Vardy vs. Liverpool: “Is he a bogeyman? I am hoping so. Sometimes strikers will have good memories of playing against certain teams. Centre forwards go through these purple patches and everybody would like one who can get you 20 goals a season.”

Prediction

If anything is certain in a Liverpool match, it’s that the first goal doesn’t matter. Since the start of last season, the Reds are tops in the league with 20 points from losing positions. However, they’re also fifth in the league in that same timeframe with 20 points lost from winning positions. With that in mind, a wild game is likely in store, but with the inconsistent form for either side of late, it’s tough to pick a winner. A 2-2 draw is a likely result.

Premier League Preview: Stoke City vs. Chelsea

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  • Chelsea has won 17 of its last 23 Premier League games
  • Alvaro Morata has 3 goals and 2 assists, all with his head
  • Stoke has lost just 1 of its past 7 home games vs defending champions

Eden Hazard is back and at full strength as Chelsea travels to the Britannia to take on Stoke City Saturday (Watch live, 10:00 a.m. ET online via NBCSports.com).

With Hazard back and Diego Costa finally shed to Atletico Madrid, the Blues have positioned themselves to make a run at the Premier League’s top spot. Chelsea has not lost since their Opening Day misstep against Burnley, and despite firing a blank in last weekend’s 0-0 draw with the Gunners, Chelsea is still just three points off the top spot, and will look to put pressure on the Manchester clubs.

In addition to Hazard, the Blues also get Temoue Bakayoko and Pedro back in the lineup as well, although David Luiz is suspended after his late red card last weekend.

[ LIVE: Stream Premier League games

This season has been a roller coaster ride for Stoke City, having picked up four points against Arsenal and Manchester United, but also losing to Newcastle and Everton, plus a very disappointing defeat midweek to Bristol City in the Cup. The Potters are missing a host of defenders, with Geoff Cameron and Ryan Shawcross both injured, plus Kurt Zouma ineligible to face his parent club. Kevin Wimmer is also touch and go with a hamstring injury, not expected to be available.

What they’re saying

Mark Hughes on Chelsea’s discipline issues: “Chelsea at the moment look like they are getting yellow and red cards more frequently, but that might be just an anomaly, something happening in the moment. I don’t think it is prevalent in their team. They are just strong when they need to be. It is not going to be tactic we are going to irritate them with, to step over the line, because if I’m honest I don’t think I’ll have the players to do that.”

Antonio Conte on Stoke: “The most important thing for us is to go game by game. Tomorrow it will be a really tough game. We must prepare very well this game in all the situations, tactically, physically, to be disciplined. Stoke won against Arsenal and then drew against Manchester United. It means Stoke is a really good team.”

Prediction

Stoke City has given tough teams trouble, and could again if Maxim Chupo-Moting shows up at his best again, but it’s much more likely that Chelsea will ease by in this game. The Potters have fallen off slightly this season, and while their draw against Manchester United shows they pack some punch, it won’t be enough to see off a Chelsea side buoyed by the return of Eden Hazard. Chelsea could win their opening three Premier League away matches for the first time since 2009…their third away fixture of that campaign was a 2-1 victory at Stoke, so we’ll go for the same scoreline here.

Hope Solo says she has settled grievance with US Soccer

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Hope Solo has settled a grievance with U.S. Soccer over her suspension from the women’s national team following comments she made at the Rio Olympics.

The settlement was first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle. The 35-year-old goalkeeper was suspended for six months and her contract with the federation was terminated after she called the Swedish team “a bunch of cowards” following the U.S. team’s quarterfinal loss.

Details about the settlement, reached last month, were not released. The U.S. Women’s Soccer Team Players Association filed the grievance on Solo’s behalf.

In a statement provided Friday to The Associated Press, Solo reiterated her regret over the comments.

“As I expressed in my apology to the Swedish captain immediately following the match, I have tremendous respect for the Swedish team, and in describing the style of play, I used a choice of words that was both offensive and not at all what I had intended to convey,” she said.

[ MORE: JPW’s Premier League picks ]

“We have amicably resolved the matter and are moving forward in a positive way,” she added.

U.S. Soccer did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The Women’s Soccer Team Players Association declined to comment.

Solo anchored the team in goal for the 2015 Women’s World Cup victory, allowing just three goals in seven games with five shutouts during the tournament – earning her a second straight Golden Glove Award.

For her career, Solo has made 202 total appearances with the national team, with 153 wins and an international-record 102 shutouts.

The defending champion U.S. women were ousted from the Olympics last summer when Sweden advanced 4-3 on penalty kicks following a 1-1 draw.

Solo’s “cowards” quote came immediately following the loss. Sweden went on to play in the gold-medal match against Germany.

Solo told the AP in an interview late last year that she spoke to coach Jill Ellis and U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati following the loss, and felt that the issue was put to rest. After she returned to the United States, she said she was blindsided by the announcement about her suspension.

She said she believes U.S. Soccer wanted her off negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement. Solo has been an outspoken advocate for equal pay and was among the players who filed a complaint against the federation with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging wage discrimination.

“Let’s call it what is, which is a firing,” Solo told AP then. “It was a termination of my contract effective immediately with severance. That is a firing. It wasn’t a suspension, that’s what they told the media because it looked better. But I got fired. I got fired for what they say was using the word `cowards’ but in reality they got rid of an adversary in the fight for equal pay.”

U.S. Soccer said at the time that Solo was suspended following a culmination of actions, and separately her contract was also terminated with the team.