Cesc Fabregas dazzles but does he have a Chelsea future?

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LONDON — Cesc Fabregas was at his mercurial best as Chelsea took a giant step towards the Premier League title on Monday.

[ MORE: 5 takeaways ]

Fabregas, 30, notched two assists and twice came close to scoring as he quarterbacked Chelsea’s 3-0 win over Middlesbrough at Stamford Bridge which means they’re now one win away from winning the PL trophy.

Starting in place of the injured N'Golo Kante, the Spaniard was making just his 11th start in the PL this season and it didn’t take him long to find his range as he showed off his vast array of passing and ran the show from a deep-lying role in midfield.

Named man of the match, Fabregas wowed the crowd throughout and although Boro (who were relegated back to the Championship with the defeat) gave him ample room to launch his laser passes high, wide and handsome, he still pulled it off with minimum fuss.

Speaking to Sky Sports, Fabregas reflected on a dominant display in this game, but also a difficult season for himself.

“It’s been a difficult year for me. I’m used to playing a lot but I feel I have matured a lot,” Fabregas said. “Many people told me I am not the type of player for Antonio Conte and I should leave but I like challenges. I hadn’t played every game but I think I have played in the last 20 games. When I have been on the pitch maybe my contribution is better than a full season.”

Fabregas has now assisted four times in his last three Premier League games as the former Arsenal and Barcelona playmaker has used his class and experience to help nudge Chelsea closer to the finish line.

Yes, he may not have played anywhere near as much as he would like this season, but he’s proving that he has a future at Chelsea under Antonio Conte.

With Kante picking up Player of the Year accolades and the elegant workhorse that is Nemanja Matic almost ever-present alongside him, it’s been tough for Conte to break up what has been working so well. The Italian coach prefers two powerful holding midfielders in front of his solid back three (or five when the wing backs are tucked in) and that isn’t Fabregas’ game.

That said, Conte told reporters after the game that Fabregas has worked hard to adapt his game and has improved as the season has gone on.

In many ways Fabregas embodies how each and every player has had to readjust their own play to Conte’s 3-4-3 formation and his demanding persona.

“Cesc is one of the best examples of our season because in this season Cesc, at the start, he didn’t play a lot. Then, through the hard work he improved a lot and then he is playing in every game. This development of Cesc is our development,” Conte said. “We started the season not in the right way with a lot of problems but only through the hard work to find the right solution together, we found the right way.

“Now, I think Cesc is showing to be a fantastic player and I’m pleased for him because I saw in this season that he put himself in this team in every moment. If he played or if he didn’t play. I think now he deserves this.”

Behind-the-scenes Fabregas has been tweaking his game and waiting for his moments to shine. He’s stepped up to help Chelsea to within one win of a second PL title in his three years at the club.

Despite rumors suggesting he could move to AC Milan or Inter in Serie A or even Manchester United in the Premier League this summer, Fabregas has found more chances to play in the past few months. With Chelsea having a heavier load next season due to UEFA Champions League qualification and aiming to go far in the domestic cups, he has a pivotal role to play in this Chelsea side next season and beyond. If he wants to do.

All of a sudden the future looks bright for Fabregas at Stamford Bridge. As long as he’s content with playing somewhere between a bit-part role and being the main man.

His quality is crystal clear but whether or not he’ll be a regular is a much murkier subject, one which Conte will have a tough time grappling this summer.

Benitez happy to stay at Newcastle if he “has the tools to compete”

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Rafa Benitez is approaching something vaguely resembling sainthood in the northeast of England — with the Newcastle United-supporting portion, at least — but his future remains in doubt as the end of the current Premier League season draws nearer and the next one approaches.

[ MORE: Salah beats De Bruyne to win PFA Player of the year award ]

Benitez and Newcastle owner Mike Ashley have endured an unhappy working relationship for much of Benitez’s 25 months at the club. The Spaniard was true to his word, though, when he stuck around another season after being relegated from the PL in 2016, then again after winning promotion on the Magpies’ first attempt, but he’ll be faced with the same dilemma again this summer, even after guiding Newcastle to a mid-table finish (they currently sit 10th with five games left to play).

[ MORE: Man United reach FA Cup final | Chelsea join them ]

If he’s not given assurances that he’ll be handed the necessary funds to properly strengthen his squad during the upcoming summer transfer window, the 58-year-old could very well walk away and leave Ashley to play the part of all-too-familiar villain. Or, as Benitez put it this weekend, Ashley could fork over “the tools to be capable of competing” and make everyone, from the manager to the fans, happy — quotes form the Guardian:

“If they [Ashley’s representatives] want to talk to my people [about a new contract,] they can talk. The main thing is to be sure we share the same ambition.

“I want to win games and I want to win trophies and I want to have the tools to be capable of competing. At the same time, I like to improve players, coach players, follow a business plan, a realistic business plan in modern football. I have no problem with that because I did it in the past.

“We have to be sure to have all the tools to compete and achieve what we want to achieve because Newcastle is a massive football club and we want it to reach its potential.”

Of course, the perfect scenario for everyone involved would have been for any one of the numerous takeover bids to have gone through during the last two years, but as was most recently evidenced earlier this year, Ashley and the Toon can’t seem to quit each other just yet.

MLS: Timbers end NYCFC’s unbeaten start; Seattle get 1st win

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Sunday was a very good day for a pair of green-clad Cascadia rivals, the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders, as the former put to end the unbeaten start of the best team in MLS, while the latter picked up their first win of 2018…

[ MORE: Saturday’s MLS roundupOther MLS Things — The Archive ]

Portland Timbers 3-0 New York City FC

Through their first seven games, NYCFC were almost inarguably the best team in MLS (aside: how much better is their opening-day walkover of Sporting KC looking these days?), but Patrick Vieira’s side might as well have not even shown up to Providence Park on Sunday. Chalk it up to “it’s only one game,” or “these things happen in MLS,” or “NYC to Portland is a long trip for Russian clubs,” or any other credible rationale you prefer, but they were nothing more than 11 passengers for the whole of 90 minutes.

A quick look at the defending on all three of Portland’s goals…

Vieira was right at halftime, when he said his side was lacking intensity and aggression, and that it’d be nigh impossible to get back into the game in the second half if they continued to play that way. Spoiler: it was, because they did.

Just as I’ll not be rushing to judgment over NYCFC’s no-show performance, I’m not yet buying into the idea that Portland have figured things out defensively on the back of one clean sheet (their first of the season).

Seattle Sounders 3-1 Minnesota United

Speaking of firsts, Seattle are the proud owners of points — as in, more than one point — after putting three past Minnesota but almost fatally failing to kill the game off after going 2-0 up. I’m not sure what any defender in black is doing on this sequence…

Alas, Gustav Svensson, Will Bruin and Jordy Delem were far more clinical with their chances than the Loons…

Still, though, Seattle were completely helpless when it came time to grab control of the game while in a commanding position. Osvaldo Alonso is nowhere near the player he once was, which is a massive problem against teams that set up to counter-attack, as Minnesota did on Sunday. It doesn’t help that Roman Torres and Chad Marshall are the plodding center backs behind him.

The obvious answer to the midfield problem is to play Cristian Roldan deeper, alongside Alonso as they did en route to winning MLS Cup in 2016, but injuries to a number of key attackers have forced him into a de facto no. 10 role for the time being. These things will work themselves out with a bit of time, I suppose.

Full MLS scoreboard

Sporting Kansas City 6-0 Vancouver Whitecaps (Friday) — FULL RECAP
Montreal Impact 3-5 Los Angeles FC — FULL RECAP
Houston Dynamo 5-1 Toronto FC
New York Red Bulls 1-2 Chicago Fire
Columbus Crew SC 2-2 New England Revolution
Orlando City SC 3-2 San Jose Earthquakes
FC Dallas 2-0 Philadelphia Union
Real Salt Lake 3-0 Colorado Rapids
LA Galaxy 0-2 Atlanta United

Salah beats De Bruyne to win PFA Player of the Year award

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LONDON (AP) Mohamed Salah has been voted Player of the Year by his fellow professionals in English football in recognition of an incredible scoring return to the Premier League with Liverpool.

[ MORE: Man United reach FA Cup final | Chelsea join them ]

The Egypt forward collected the Professional Footballers’ Association award at a ceremony in London on Sunday, two days before Liverpool’s Champions League semifinal first leg against Roma.

It is a reunion with the Italian club he left in the offseason for 42 million euros (then $47 million). The hefty fee appeared to be a gamble for Liverpool but now represents a real bargain.

The former Chelsea player has scored 41 goals in 46 appearances in all competitions for Liverpool – enabling him to beat Manchester City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne in second place to the PFA award.

Tottenham striker Harry Kane was third.

[ MORE: Man City thrash Swansea in pursuit of points record ]

“It’s a big honor,” Salah said. “I’ve worked hard and I’m very happy to win it.”

Salah is preparing to lead Egypt into its first World Cup in 28 years and he is the first player from the North African nation to win English football’s top individual prize.

“Hopefully I’m not the last one,” he said. “I’m very proud to win and I’ve worked very hard.”

Salah’s impact has been more remarkable given his underwhelming 2014-15 season at Chelsea before being offloaded by then-manager Jose Mourinho. He went on loan to Fiorentina in early 2015 and Roma in 2016, and then on a permanent basis to Roma in August 2016.

Scoring 15 goals and setting up 11 more for Roma convinced Liverpool to bring Salah back to a second spell in England.

[ MORE: Liverpool draw West Brom in final tune-up before UCL semis ]

His goal at West Bromwich Albion on Saturday was his 31st in the league this season, tying the scoring record in a 38-game campaign held by Cristiano Ronaldo, Alan Shearer and Luis Suarez.

Suarez was the last Liverpool player to be crowned player of the year by the PFA in 2014 before moving to Barcelona.

It’s a sign of his remarkable impact that Salah secured the award with third-place Liverpool and that none of Manchester City’s newly crowned champions won the accolade.

But City winger Leroy Sane was voted PFA Young Player of the Year.

The PFA women’s player award went to Chelsea forward Fran Kirby, while Lauren Hemp of Bristol City secured the young player prize.

CONCACAF cancels women’s U-17 tournament due to violence

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MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (AP) CONCACAF has canceled the rest of its 2018 Women’s Under-17 Championship following violence in Managua, Nicaragua, where the tournament began Thursday.

The Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football made the announcement Sunday. The tournament was to have determined the region’s qualifiers for the Under-17 World Cup in Uruguay, which starts Nov. 13.

More than two dozen people have been killed since Wednesday according to the independent Nicaraguan Human Rights Center, though the government had acknowledged only nine dead. Dozens of shops in Managua were looted during protests and disturbances sparked by government social security reforms.

The U.S. opened Friday with a 4-0 win over Costa Rica and had been scheduled to play Bermuda on Sunday and Canada on Tuesday.