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.

The 2 Robbies: Terriers Triumph And Chelsea Leave It Late

Nigel French/PA via AP
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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.