More glory on the mind as Chelsea crowned champions

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LONDON — As the sun beat down on west London on the final day of the season, Chelsea hoisted the Premier League trophy into the air amid euphoria.

Increased expectations were also in the air.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Chelsea had become the first team in Premier League history to win 30 games in a season as Antonio Conte has put together a fluid, rigid machine capable of powering or finessing its way past opponents. There are very few weaknesses to this team and the 3-4-3 system has been a revelation for the champions.

“A lot of emotions today. It is great to finish the season this way, to celebrate a fantastic season,” Conte said. “We won the league with 30 wins and it is very positive for us. Someone could think that this season was easy but this season wasn’t easy. I think we overcame a lot of difficult steps but now for this reason we must be very proud to celebrate with our fans, our family, to have this day together.”

Now, greater challenges lie ahead and even amidst celebrations many were thinking ahead to the FA Cup final at Wembley next Saturday against Saturday.

Conte knows the fans want more silverware, as the supporters who have celebrated 14 major titles since Roman Abramovich arrived expect success.

“Now we have another chance to celebrate this season with a final in the FA Cup,” Conte said. “We all know that this game will be very tough but a great day, a fantastic day. Honestly, it was very difficult to imagine this finale in this season, to celebrate a win in the league but it happened. I think that it happened only because we worked very hard with our players.”

As a brass band fired up the Liquidator pregame outside Stamford Bridge, shirts with “Champions, 17” on the back and scarves, flags and hats littered the crowd. Chelsea have now won the title five times in the past 12 seasons, but this felt different.

There is a new expectant era dawning at Chelsea.

Chelsea’s fans were going to enjoy these celebrations, just like they did after the title-sealing win at West Brom 10 days ago, then the home game against Watford last week.

Leaning against a brick wall at Stamford Bridge with his sunglasses on his head, Chelsea fan Frank O’Brien is one of the many who want to see their team push on, especially after finishing 10th last season just 12 months after securing the PL crown.

Complacency is no longer tolerated at Chelsea.

“If you reflect on last season, it was a massive disappointment considering the season before. With a little bit of organization and bit more self-belief among the group they’ve achieved what they’ve achieved this season and hopefully they will kick on from here,” O’Brien said. “Champions League football next season, even better. I expect the club to purchase a few additional players and hopefully have a really good push for the Champions League.”

A huge poster adorned the back of the Chelsea hotel and retail village which sits behind The Shed End at Stamford Bridge. It simply read “Thank You – Grazie!” and had a photo of John Terry and Antonio Conte hugging.

The subplot to this title celebration was Terry’s final day at Stamford Bridge.

Terry, 36, played in his final game for Chelsea to end his 22-year career with the Blues. Fans wore John Terry’s name and number on their shirts, lauded him after the game and he said an emotional farewell to supporters at the final whistle.

Coming off in the 26th minute to a guard of honor from his teammates, Terry got a fitting farewell as he set PL record for winning five titles as captain and he has won 15 major titles with the only club he’s ever known.

He will always remain a legend of Chelsea and whatever he does next, nothing can taint the bond he has with the Chelsea faithful. He stayed long after any other player to shake hands, sign autographs and hug Chelsea’s fans with his son by his side.

Terry didn’t want this day to end, and neither did Conte who was the last person on the pitch as he carried the trophy down the tunnel and into the dressing room.

Conte’s Chelsea career has only just begun but the fact that he is there, right alongside Terry, on the giant mural (see above) shows how highly he is already regarded.

Chelsea’s fans are delighted with Conte winning a PL title, and potentially an FA Cup, in his first season in charge. But now they’ve tasted success again, they want more.

“When you get consistency with a manager, as well as he’s done this season the challenge for him next season is to push on again,” O’Brien said. “Anything less than winning the Champions League and the Premier League is a disappointment. That’s the way it is in football but I sincerely believe the club will kick on from here.”

As he sipped champagne with the media at Stamford Bridge, Conte already had his mind on the FA Cup final next week. He says Arsenal are the favorites after they missed out on finishing in the top four.

“If you ask me ‘who is the favorite now?’ I can tell you it is Arsenal. Because Arsenal now only has this possibility to find a good season after a win in the FA Cup. For this season we must play great attention. We must find in ourselves the right motivation and the right anger because the game it will be very difficult for all of these reasons. After Arsenal missed the Champions League, we must have or antenna very high and to prepare in the right way. I’m not talking about tactics, I’m talking about motivation in our souls, our hearts. If we have this in the same proportion with Arsenal or more, we have the possibility to win and do the double. Otherwise we risk a lot.”

Conte is always playing mind games and always keeping his squad hunger to achieve. That’s exactly what Chelsea’s trophy hungry fans want to hear.

As Terry hoisted the PL trophy aloft, the jubilation was clear among Chelsea’s fans.

It’s also clear that the expectation levels have risen to their previous lofty heights at Chelsea and now Conte must keep delivering success.

“This is the real danger for us, to think that the season is finished,” Conte said. “If you win or lose, it doesn’t change the situation. We must think as a winner and not as a loser. It is important to celebrate today, enjoy this moment with our families and fans. To celebrate this title but from tomorrow, I am the first to try to push a lot to explain that this season will be great because if we didn’t win the title it would be good. After we win the title it became great. I think this season can become fantastic if we are able to win the FA Cup.

“We must find the right motivation because at this level with Chelsea and Arsenal, the level is the same and in the league we lost a game 3-0 and we won the game 3-1. It is a great target but it is important for us to celebrate but then to find the right fire in our soul to be ready to work very hard this week and prepare and feel in the right way this game. I think for me, the players, the fans, the club, this is a great opportunity to do the double.”

Conte is a Premier League champion but, like everyone else connected with Chelsea, he wants more.

Griezmann: “No regrets” rejecting Man United move in summer

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After flirting with the idea of moving to Manchester last summer, Atletico Madrid star Antoine Griezmann is in one of the worst goal-scoring droughts in his career.

It’s been seven games since he last scored and with just three goals total, it’s been an underwhelming season so far for the Frenchman. But Griezmann doesn’t regret turning down the chance to join Manchester United last summer.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

“I don’t regret staying at Atleti,” Griezmann told French TV program Telefoot. “It was my decision and I’m happy with what I chose to do – even if I have gone seven games without scoring”.

Griezmann was booed off the pitch in Atleti’s scoreless draw with city rivals Real Madrid, as both clubs dropped to 10 points behind La Liga leaders Barcelona in the standings. There have been rumors swirling that Griezmann could even leave Atletico in January, with Diego Costa set to join the club.

On his game, with good service from midfield, Griezmann is one of the best attackers on the planet. But with Romelu Lukaku, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, and more, Manchester United already has the firepower to compete with the top of the Premier League

LIVE, UCL: Liverpool, Man City in action; Dortmund-Tottenham

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Three Premier League teams are in UEFA Champions League action on Tuesday with Liverpool knowing a win at Sevilla will see them qualify for the knockout stage for the first time since 2009.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ] 

Jurgen Klopp‘s side head to Spain in good form after three consecutive wins in the Premier League and are in a very healthy position in Group E.

Tottenham Hotspur head to Borussia Dortmund with Spurs’ place in the last 16 already secured and Dortmund (Christian Pulisic is out of the squad with an injury) needing a win to keep their faint hopes of reaching the knockout stage alive with Real Madrid heading to APOEL Nicosia in Group H.

Manchester City have also secured their spot in the last 16 and host Feyenoord in Group F. The Dutch side have lost all four of their UCL games so far this season but have taken a huge number of traveling fans to Manchester and they can still qualify for the Europa League via finishing in third spot ahead of Shaktar Donetsk.

Elsewhere Monaco host RB Leipzig in a pivotal clash in Group G.

Click on the link above to follow commentary on all the action, while below is the full schedule as we will have reaction and analysis on all the UCL action on Tuesday.

All games kick off at 2:45 p.m. ET, unless otherwise stated.


Tuesday’s UCL schedule

Group E
Spartak Moscow 1-1 Maribor – FT
Sevilla vs. Liverpool

Group F
Manchester City vs. Feyenoord
Napoli vs. Shakhtar Donetsk

Group G
Monaco vs. RB Leipzig
Besiktas 1-1 FC Porto – FT

Group H
Borussia Dortmund vs. Tottenham Hotspur
APOEL vs. Real Madrid

FIFA bans 3 soccer officials for life for taking bribes

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GENEVA (AP) Three soccer officials who pleaded guilty in American courts to accepting bribes were banned for life by the FIFA ethics committee on Tuesday.

They include former FIFA audit committee member Richard Lai of Guam, who testified in federal court that the source of his bribe money was Olympic powerbroker Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah of Kuwait.

“His guilty plea related, amongst others, to schemes in which he received bribes in exchange for his support in relation to the FIFA presidential elections and to gain control and influence within the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) and FIFA,” the soccer body said Tuesday in a statement.

Sheikh Ahmad referred his own case to the ethics committees of FIFA and the International Olympic Committee in April after Lai’s guilty plea was revealed. The Kuwaiti royal also withdrew from an election to retain his seat representing Asia on the FIFA Council.

Two former soccer federation presidents, Rafael Esquivel of Venezuela and Julio Rocha of Nicaragua, were also banned for life Tuesday. They were arrested in Zurich in May 2015 in early morning raids on luxury hotels and later extradited to the United States.

FIFA said its ethics judges imposed “appropriate fines in relation to the amounts of the bribes that they have admitted having taken.”

Lai has agreed to pay “more than $1.1 million in forfeiture and penalties,” the U.S. Department of Justice said in April.

In court, the American citizen pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy charges related to taking about $1 million in bribes, including at least $850,000 from Kuwaiti officials.

Esquivel agreed to forfeit $16 million a year ago when he pleaded guilty to charges of racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy linked to the awarding of contracts for the media and marketing rights.

Esquivel’s name was cited Monday in Brooklyn during testimony in the trial of three other South American soccer officials who deny corruption charges.

One witness who formerly worked for a marketing agency in Argentina said he kept a ledger of payments to officials, including a $750,000 payment to Esquivel for “Q2022.” Prosecutors did not specify if the payment was linked to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Rocha was a FIFA staffer and was working for its development department when he was arrested in 2015. He agreed to forfeit nearly $300,000 after admitting to racketeering conspiracy and wire fraud conspiracy charges last December.

PL Playback: Pogba the key for Man United

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POGBACK

Paul Pogba‘s snake hips goal celebration had been dearly missed by Manchester United’s fans.

So too had his marauding runs from midfield since he injured his hamstring in early September. Jose Mourinho had previously said United were a totally different team without Pogba and his display in the 4-1 win against Newcastle on Saturday proved it.

Speaking to MUTV after the game, Pogba shared his belief that if all of United’s players stay fit they can challenge Manchester City for the title.

“The season is really long so we have to be fit – not only me but all the players,” Pogba said. “To win the league we need all our players. When you have one injured here, one injured there, it doesn’t help. It’s always better to have a full team. Zlatan’s back and Marcos after a long injury. It was hard for them but they kept believing and worked hard to come back. We need them to win the league and we’re really glad they’re here.”

Even if he didn’t jinx past Newcastle’s defense to clip in a wonderful cross for Anthony Martial to head home United’s first, or then make a 60-yard sprint to get on the end of Marcus Rashford‘s knockdown to make it 3-1, Pogba’s presence was felt.

His return gave United’s entire squad, and fanbase, a lift and everything is set up rather nicely for him to battle it out with Kevin De Bruyne in the Manchester derby on Dec. 10 at Old Trafford.

With Pogba this season United have played five games, winning four and drawing one.

Without Pogba United have played seven, won four, lost twice and drawn once in the Premier League.

His influence on this team is key to the way it has been assembled by Mourinho and his power, all-action displays and strong character get the best out of those around him. Nemanja Matic and Romelu Lukaku tick because Pogba is linking the midfield and attack effortlessly with his energetic displays. Over the past two months there’s been a main reason why Lukaku had done seven games without scoring for United before last weekend: Pogba.

Pogba’s comments about United pushing City for the title if they stay fit appear misguided but if he stays fit then there’s no doubt United are the best version of themselves.


INFURIATING ARSENAL

When they play like they did on Saturday, the only team Arsenal will finish below this season will be Manchester City.

Seriously.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned from the North London derby ]

The Gunners destroyed Tottenham Hotspur with a ruthless display in the first half as Mesut Ozil unlocked Spurs’ midfield and defense, Alexis Sanchez ran them ragged and Alexandre Lacazette played on the last shoulder of Tottenham’s disheveled defense.

Arsene Wenger was rewarded for a bold, attack-minded team selection and with Shkodran Mustafi back fit he now has his first-choice starting lineup at his disposal. If the Gunners stay fit, they can make real charge up the Premier League table in the coming weeks with a bunch of winnable games.

In four of their next five Premier League games they should beat Huddersfield, Southampton, West Ham and Newcastle, with the big tests at home against Man United (Dec. 2) and Liverpool (Dec. 22) showing just how far they’ve come so far this season.

The Emirates, so often the site of protests and fan unrest in previous seasons, is become a fortress for Arsenal who have now won 11 PL games there on the spin, their best-ever run of consecutive wins at the stadium.

Between now and Dec. 22 we will get a very good idea as to what way this season will go for Arsenal.

If Wenger’s players stay fit and he remains positive in his team selection, the Gunners could be rewarded with not only a place back in the top four but much more.


WEST BROM’S GAMBLE

Tony Pulis is the man you want in a relegation battle. So, why did West Bromwich Albion sack him?

A run of two wins in 21 Premier League games sealed Pulis’ fate but what exactly did West Brom’s owners expect would happen?

Pulis’ short-term bump from taking over in January 1 2015 wore off midway through last season and his methods, although lauded by many for preserving his proud record of never being relegation from the Premier League, wear players down over time. Even the wily old crew he had assembled at West Brom (they had the oldest average starting XI in the PL) couldn’t cope with it anymore.

[ MORE: Baggies sack Tony Pulis. but what next? ]

The old adage “losing the dressing room” is frowned upon by folks in the industry but it is clear that’s what happened here. Players believe they are better than perhaps they are, most of the time, and get sick and tired of being told to just clip the ball long, stay compact and try to score from set pieces. Most of Pulis’ training session focus on team shape and denying the opposition the ball. Having the ball is an afterthought. That’s too much for some to handle day in, day out.

And we all know, despite the Baggies being a solid midtable club for seven years in the PL now, that getting rid of one manager is much easier than a squad of players.

Getting rid of Pulis was the only available option.

Yet, after a summer where they did some great business to bring in Grzegorz Krychowiak, Kieran Gibbs, Ahmed Hegazi and Jay Rodriguez, things seemed to be on the up. Yet that recruitment and losing the likes of Darren Fletcher caused issues in the squad balance and Pulis all of a sudden had too many newbies on board who either took too much time to get used to his methods or didn’t want to adjust their game to do so.

All in all, West Brom are now left with very few options to replace Pulis other than appointing someone extremely similar to him. Sam Allardyce is from the area (a boyhood Wolves fan, West Brom’s bitter rivals) is the bookmakers favorite and he would seem to be the perfect firefighter against a Premier League relegation battle.

But, like many PL clubs who have sacked their managers so far this season (hello, Everton, Crystal Palace, West Ham) or are contemplating it (Swansea, Southampton and maybe Stoke) the alternatives to their current boss aren’t plentiful. Keeping hold of Pulis was no longer an option West Brom had but, over time, it may seem like the correct one.


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