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.

The 2 Robbies: Terriers Triumph And Chelsea Leave It Late

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Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe start today’s show off by discussing Huddersfield Town’s surprising win against Manchester United (00:20), Jose Mourinho’s measured post-match interview (03:50), praise Manchester City again (10:30), discuss Sean Dyche’s next move (16:10), analyze that exciting match between Chelsea and Watford (18:30) and finally, weigh in on Slaven Bilic’s future at West Ham United (27:30).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

All of the The 2 Robbies content can be accessed by clicking on this link:

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Follow them on Twitter @The2Robbies

La Liga: Barca win to maintain lead, but Valencia won’t go away

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Barcelona regained a four-point cushion atop the Spanish league with a ho-hum 2-0 win over visiting Malaga and surging Valencia dismissed Sevilla 4-0 at home on Saturday.

Barcelona faced last-placed Malaga in the closing match of the day, with added pressure from second-placed Valencia, which has won five in a row.

Barcelona is unbeaten after starting with seven straight wins and drawing with Atletico Madrid last week.

Seldom-used Gerard Deulofeu opened the scoring for Barcelona after just two minutes, and Andres Iniesta celebrated his first of the season in the second half thanks to a brilliant assist by Lionel Messi.

Defending champion Real Madrid hosts Eibar on Sunday.

Barcelona benefited from a flagrant referee misjudgment to get its go-ahead goal against Malaga. Left back Lucas Digne was allowed to center the ball after it clearly crossed the byline, and Deulofeu acrobatically back-footed it inside the net.

Despite the blow, the visitors got back up and managed to neutralize Barcelona for most of the first half, but lost striker Diego Rolan just before the second period. The Uruguayan import was forced off by injury.

Without Rolan, Malaga lacked bite in its pressure of the home backline, and Barcelona was able to polish ball circulation and find Messi with more frequency.

Messi received a clean pass from defender Javier Mascherano, drew the defense, and dropped a perfect pass for Iniesta, whose shot was deflected by defender Roberto Rosales on its way to the upper left corner.

Malaga surrendered and Barcelona dominated the rest of the way.


Gonzalo Guedes opened the scoring for Valencia near halftime with a majestic strike from outside the box after deftly outmaneuvering two defenders on the chase.

Simone Zaza added his eighth league goal after the break with a spin and low cross shot. Santi Mina came off the bench and scored the third with just five minutes to go, finishing off a speedy counterattack for the hosts.

But the show was all Guedes, and the Portuguese midfielder rounded off his great game with the closer, subtly poking the ball over goalkeeper Sergio Rico in added time.

Sevilla has lost three in a row in all competitions. Managed by Eduardo Berizzo, the team started off red-hot in La Liga but has floundered lately, ranking fifth.

 

Serie A: Napoli’s perfect season ends after draw with Inter

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MILAN (AP) Napoli’s perfect start to Serie A finally came to an end on Saturday in an enthralling 0-0 home draw with Inter Milan, the only other unbeaten side in the Italian top flight.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup | Sunday preview — Spurs vs. Liverpool ]

There were plenty of chances at the San Paolo, and Inter goalkeeper Samir Handanovic was kept busier than his Napoli counterpart Pepe Reina.

It was the first time since April and a 2-2 draw at Sassuolo that Napoli has failed to win in Serie A.

Napoli remained top of the standings, two points above Inter and six above Juventus and Lazio, which face Udinese and Cagliari respectively on Sunday.

[ TACTICS SESSION: Inside the brilliant mind of Kevin De Bruyne ]

Napoli was looking for a ninth successive league win. It was boosted by Lorenzo Insigne passing fit to start after injuring a thigh on Tuesday in the Champions League defeat at Manchester City.

Inter was full of confidence after Mauro Icardi’s hat trick helped it win last week’s derby against AC Milan, but it hadn’t won in Naples in 20 years.

Napoli almost went in front but Handanovic pulled off a stunning double save to deny first Jose Callejon and then keep out Dries Mertens’ rebound attempt from point-blank range.

Handanovic then kept out an effort from Insigne following a great ball over the top from Marek Hamsik.

[ MORE: Mourinho — “We deserved the punishment of defeat” to Huddersfield ]

Inter went close shortly before halftime but Reina did well to fingertip Borja Valero’s close-range attempt over the bar.

Insigne had more chances after the break, going closest with a curling effort just past the right post.

Hamsik also fired narrowly wide, and Handanovic parried a powerful shot from substitute Piotr Zielinski.

Mertens should have won the match for Napoli in the final minute but Handanovic was again on hand to keep out his close-range volley.

Tactics Session: Inside the mind of Kevin De Bruyne

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If not for Harry Kane‘s prolific scoring of goals during the early days of this season, Kevin De Bruyne would almost certainly be the early runaway favorite for 2017-18 Premier League Player of the Season.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup | Sunday preview — Spurs vs. Liverpool ]

Alas, Kane, the one-season wonder that he is, seems hellbent on cracking the century mark in the PL this season, rather than waiting until 2018-19. This sets up what should be a thoroughly exhilarating seven-month battle between two polar opposite players — Kane, the goalscorer; and De Bruyne, the assist machine.

On Saturday, NBC Sports’ Robbie Earle delved into the mind of De Bruyne (above video) in light of last weekend’s 7-2 thrashing of Stoke City, during which De Bruyne notched another pair of assists to take season tally to five through eight games. Later on Saturday, De Bruyne added another in Man City’s 3-0 victory over Burnley.

[ MORE: Matchday experience — behind the scenes at Southampton ]

The first thing pointed out by Earle is the recovery — though deployed as more of a central midfielder on the day, De Bruyne sits wide with City in possession high up the field, just waiting for the opportune moment to surge forward and join the likes of Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and Sergio Aguero (now that he’s back from injury). When Jesus’ ball is too lightly weighted, De Bruyne reacts quickest to make the recovery.

From there, his head is up and scanning the entire field. One touch forward, and he’s already accounted for the positioning of each of his teammates, as well as the Stoke defenders, and every pocket of space into which he’ll either carry or play the ball. He knows the precise spot on the field he must get to in order to pull the defense to him, thus opening the necessary space (and time) for the final man — Sane, in this instance — to make his run in behind.

[ MORE: Mourinho — “We deserved the punishment of defeat” to Huddersfield ]

This is the part of De Bruyne’s game which he does better than anyone else in the world right now; no one can hold a candle KDB’s timing and vision — not Henrikh Mkhitaryan, not Isco, not Mesut Ozil, not even his brilliant teammate (and fellow six-assist man) David Silva. He’s almost operating at peak-Andres Iniesta level right now, which makes KDB and Co. appointment viewing every weekend.

Even now, after creating the passing lane and providing Sane the extra half-second to get level with his man before accelerating past in the blink of an eye. Even then, having seen the pass he has to play, there’s still the (major) matter of threading the needle through and around four defenders. On this occasion, the perfect pass is nearly 15 yards in front of Sane, and far less than that distance in front of the goalkeeper. An inch or two too short, it’s cleared by the right back; and inch or two too long, and the goalkeeper collects it easily.

As usual, no player in the world comes close to matching De Bruyne’s genius.