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.

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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.

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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

Vidal rips Ronaldo ahead of Confederations Cup semifinal

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Chile hopes to make a statement on Wednesday when it faces EURO 2016 champions Portugal and Ballon d’Or champion Cristiano Ronaldo.

The 2015 and 2016 Copa America champions can lay claim to another inter-confederation title with two more wins in the 2017 Confederations Cup, beginning with the semifinal in Kazan.

[ MORE: Chelsea sells Traore ]

Chile finished behind Germany in Group B but didn’t lose a match and only allowed two goals. That’ll be tested by Portugal and its seven goals in three matches.

Two of those goals came from Ronaldo, but don’t tell that to Arturo Vidal. Chile’s hard-edged midfielder doesn’t like him much.

From Goal.com:

“Cristiano is a smart ass,” he told reporters. “For me he does not exist.

“I have already told my Bayern Munich team-mate Joshua Kimmich that we will meet again in the final.”

Germany will have to take care of Mexico to make that happen, though we have a feeling a certain smart ass will have a thing or two to say before it’s all said and done.

Vidal has spoken loudly of his desire to get Chilean teammate Alexis Sanchez, a former Barcelona man, at his club Bayern Munich. If Ronaldo is on the market, this isn’t a great recruiting tool. Ah, jokes.

Trio of Crew players in Ghana roster to face USMNT, Mexico

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Ghana’s team to face the United States men’s national team on Saturday in East Hartford will look somewhat familiar to fans of Major League Soccer.

Columbus Crew players Harrison Afful, Mohammed Abu and Jonathan Mensah join David Accam of the Chicago Fire, and Gershon Koffie of the New England Revolution on a unit with Kwadwo Poku of the NASL’s Kwadwo Poku.

John Boye, Asamoah Gyan, and Mensah are the only three players from the loss to the USMNT in the 2014 World Cup.

[ MORE: Full FIFA-Qatar report leaked? ]

Like the U.S., this is a less than full-strength squad. Missing are a number of Black Stars standouts, with Andre Ayew, Jordan Ayew, Afriyie Acquah, Daniel Amartey, Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu, Christian Atsu, Jeff Schlupp, and Baba Rahman not with the team.

Saturday’s match is the last USMNT outing before the Gold Cup begins on July 8 in Nashville against Panama.

Goalkeepers: Addo Joseph (Aduana Stars), Richard Ofori (Wa All Stars)

Defenders: Lumor Agbenyenu (Munich 1860), Harrison Afful (Columbus Crew),  Nicholas Opoku (Berekum Chelsea), Jerry Akaminko (Eskiserhispor),  John Boye (Sivasspor), Rashid Sumalia (Al Gharafa), Jonathan Mensah (Columbus Crew), Samuel Sarfo (Liberty)

Midfielders: Mohammed Abu (Columbus Crew, Isaac Sackey (Alanyaspor), Ofori Ebenezer (Stuttgart), Kwadwo Poku (FC Miami), Winful Kwaku Cobbinah (Hearts of Oak), Frank Acheampong (Anderlecht), Thomas Agyepong (NAC Breda), Gershon Koffie (New England Revolution)

Strikers: Asamoah Gyan (Al Alhi), Raphael Dwamena (FC Zurich), Majeed Abdul Waris (Lorient FC), David Accam (Chicago Fire)

Timo Werner abused in Germany but key to World Cup defense

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) The abuse has followed Timo Werner for months, gathering pace as rapidly as the striker has amassed goals.

No German player was more prolific in the Bundesliga last season. No player was as ostracized.

But Werner is now a full-blown Germany international, scoring his first goals at the Confederations Cup on Sunday, and he could hold the key to the World Cup defense next year.

[ MORE: USMNT’s 23-man roster questions ]

That could require Germany supporters to forgive a player they jeered at during his first competitive game for Joachim Loew’s team earlier this month.

“Kobe Bryant has also been booed everywhere and he always been the best,” Werner reflected ahead of Germany’s Confederations Cup semifinal against Mexico on Thursday, seeing a kindred spirit in the basketball great. “I do not want to say that I am the best like him, but (the abuse) is a bit of an incentive.”

If playing for the ascendant but deeply unpopular Leipzig wasn’t bad enough, a dive in December by Werner provided a focal point for the animosity – jealousy, perhaps – toward the Red Bull-funded team.

The insults have even been hurled far from Germany, far from soccer stadiums. The dive won a penalty against Schalke, and provided Werner with one of the 21 goals that helped to propel Leipzig into second place and a Champions League debut next season.

“There was a dive, he made a mistake and he admitted it,” Loew said, “but he is very, very young player.”

And a potentially very important one for Loew at the World Cup in Russia next year. Germany’s striking options are being assessed at the eight-team Confederations Cup as Loew still seeks a long-term successor to Miroslav Klose as target man for the world champions.

[ MORE: Chelsea sells Traore ]

Werner opened his account for Germany on his fourth appearance, scoring twice in a 3-1 victory over Cameroon on Sunday in Sochi.

“Werner put in a lot of legwork,” Loew said. “He showed how dangerous he is and that he’s got a great nose for goal. Both of his efforts were very well taken.”

Werner’s rivals for a place in the squad next year include fellow squad newcomers Lars Stindl and Sandro Wagner. They are both close to 30, while the 21-year-old Werner has youth, strength and speed on his side. Even Wagner said he has “never seen such a good striker at that age.”

That’s a result of Werner fusing his pace with intelligence on the ball, mastering dribbling at high speed first with Stuttgart and then at Leipzig.

“There’s no recipe for it,” Werner said. “The quickest players just know how to do it automatically. I like to knock the ball three or four meters ahead of me when I’m on the counter or have space in front of me, that way I can increase the distance between a defender and myself.”

Such proficiency should help Werner win over fans beyond Leipzig. Time, he hopes, will heal the fractures, and there’s certainly support from his new international teammates.

“I wish him well because of the issues he has had to endure,” captain Julian Draxler told Germany’s ARD television.

Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

More AP Confederations Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/ConfederationsCup

USMNT Gold Cup 23-man roster leaves some questions

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We have Bruce Arena’s 23-man United States men’s national roster for the Gold Cup, and there are more than a few surprises left out of the bunch.

Often a chance to experiment, those who thought this year’s Gold Cup roster would be one aimed at reclaiming glory with authority may be surprised to see the status quo.

Jurgen Klinsmann brought most of his big guns to the 2015 party — which didn’t go well for Brad Guzan and Co. — but Arena will roll into this summer’s tournament without most of his big names. There’s no Geoff Cameron, John Brooks, Michael Bradley, Christian Pulisic, Clint Dempsey, nor Jozy Altidore.

Those aren’t huge surprises, though who Arena neglected from his original 40-man short list is a bit of a shock to the system (Players can be called into the mix after the group stage, which is a fairly simple affair for the USMNT to navigate versus Panama, Martinique, and Nicagarua).

Arena is going with Brad Guzan, Sean Johnson, and Bill Hamid in a trio that fails to impress. Hamid does have a big crowd of fans who’d like to see him get a chance to assert himself as the future, and hopefully either Johnson or Hamid finds time between the sticks against a serious opponent like Panama. No surprise that Tim Howard and Joe Bendik didn’t leap into the trio (EDIT: This post initially questioned the omission of Jesse Gonzalez, but his one-time switch from Mexico to the USMNT has yet to go through).

We’ll ignore the omission of Danny Williams for the most part considering he was absent from the 40-man list, but he must have said something seriously awful to Arena or someone at U.S. soccer.

The group of forwards leaves little to complain about, as Juan Agudelo and Dom Dwyer very much deserve their chances to compete for playing time with Sounders star Jordan Morris, but the midfield provides some head-scratching. Gyasi Zardes may be a longtime Arena favorite, but the Galaxy man has been ice cold in MLS. The 25-year-old has a single assist in almost 1000 minutes of play this season, and that came back on April 8. Tommy McNamara has not lighting the league on fire and Chris Pontius and his six assists are 30 years old, so much of the grief should be directed at the 40-man again, but Zardes has to embrace this opportunity. And maybe it’s a way to help the Galaxy and Zardes get a little mojo.

As an aside, Wil Trapp is among leaders in several MLS passing stats, which leads me to believe Arena is going to play Dax McCarty and Kellyn Acosta a ton and doesn’t see much of a need for Trapp in this tournament, not ever.

Defenders Steve Birnbaum and Jonathan Spector were not rewarded with looks, though Graham Zusi was included in what must be an arm reaching out for USMNT experience. Birnbaum is leading MLS in aerials won per game and Spector is by far Orlando’s top rated player since returning from England. Yes, Spector is 31 but this is about still qualifying for next summer’s World Cup, not the 2022 cycle. Spare a thought for Matt Polster, who has been decent since returning from a knee strain. This is nothing against Zusi, a consummate professional who won’t kill the team by any means and will be an tremendous asset in leadership.

What about you? Any other gripes? Or do you love the bunch?