Redemption in the air as Chelsea clinch Premier League

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WEST BROMWICH – Antonio Conte’s Chelsea won the Premier League title on Friday, beating West Brom 1-0 as the Italian coach won the league in his first-ever season in England.

This clearly feels like the dawn of yet another era of Chelsea dominance, but it has arrived after huge disappointment last season.

[ MORE: Full “Chelsea Champions” reaction, here ]

At the final whistle most of Chelsea’s players sunk to their knees, pounding the Hawthorns pitch in delight as they’d sealed their second Premier League title in the last three seasons thanks to Michy Batshuayi‘s 82nd minute strike.

For some there was a feeling of jubilation. For most there was a sense of redemption.

The latter emotion is easy to understand.

[ MORE: How Chelsea set up title win in September

Following their title win in 2014-15 under Jose Mourinho, this was meant to be a new era of dominance for the Blues under the famed “Special One” in his second stint at the Bridge. Six months later he was fired and they were just above the relegation zone in the Premier League.

Star players Diego Costa, Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas, vilified by many for apparently playing a huge role with their slack performances on the pitch and actions behind-the-scenes in Mourinho’s demise, have answered all of their critics this season.

[ VIDEO: Chelsea win the Premier League

Gary Cahill, captain for most of this campaign, summed up his emotions after Chelsea’s title win was secured.

“It feels amazing. It is a special moment. I thought we deserved it over the season,” Cahill said. “We worked very hard and have been the better team. It is fantastic to wrap it up with a couple of games to go, it is very difficult in this league.”

In Conte, Chelsea have a new figurehead, one that the players not only trust but fear as his ferocious antics on the sidelines seem to only scratch the surface when it comes to explaining exactly what makes him a serial winner.

Conte has now won four-straight league titles (three with Juventus in Italy and one with Chelsea) and throughout the game Chelsea’s fans sung his name loud and proud with Italian flags in the away end and Conte’s face on a banner which simply read “The Boss” which was held aloft.

“Antonio, Antonio, Antonioooo, Antonio, Antonioooo!”

Conte has done a miraculous job to not only turn Chelsea into a title-winning team on the pitch but also off it too.

Mentally, many players will have been focused on proving the haters wrong. For much of last season they seemed hell-bent on proving critics wrong and were angry. Now, they’re focused and have channeled their energy in the right way.

Now, they’ve won the title. So, for this Chelsea team it should no longer be about redemption.

With the UEFA Champions League back next season, there will be bigger challenges ahead for Conte and his boys to conquer. They’ll need a bigger squad ready to challenge on all fronts but they don’t need to break up this team. They just need to add three or four players of real quality but recruiting the right players to not upset the near-perfect balance is a huge task.

Conte’s biggest task will be to keep his team hungry over the offseason. After the game he didn’t want to think about next season and purely wanted to enjoy the moment.

He won’t want the focus to be on these celebrations for too long though.

Mourinho failed with that badly back in the summer of 2015, and other previous champions have struggled to do that in recent years. Manchester City have failed to regain that hunger in a post-title winning season twice in recent years, with no back-to-back winners of the PL title since Manchester United in 2007-08 and 2008-09.

Chelsea’s players, staff and fans certainly enjoyed the moment on the pitch at the Hawthorns on Friday night after securing the title, but knowing Conte his mind will have already thought about how he can replicate this incredible success next season.

His players have got their redemption and have patched up their legacy. Now, it’s time for them to focus on winning more trophies.

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.