Can reigning champions Chelsea handle the pressure?

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Repeat after me Chelsea fans: “This is not the summer of 2016. This is not the summer of 2016.”

It isn’t, of course, but similarities between the last time Chelsea were defending champions of the Premier League and this time are starting to crop up.

There is legitimate reason for slight concern among the Chelsea ranks as largely the same group of players who struggled drastically following their last title campaign may have to wrestle their minds to stop them from getting into a similar situation once again.

Antonio Conte was short and sharp with the media following Chelsea’s defeat to Arsenal on penalty kicks in the FA Community Shield at Wembley on Sunday. He looked like a man with a lot on his mind, and rightly so.

Conte’s debut season in the PL couldn’t have gone better with a record 30 wins from 38 games as he left the Blues to the title. Many times throughout their run to the title last season Conte revealed that nobody expected Chelsea to win the PL given their incredible collapse the season before. He was right. Everyone through it would be a two to three year rebuild and there was no pressure on the Italian coach and his staff.

Now the pressure is real and cracks have started to appear ever since the end of last season.

First the way in which his side lost the FA Cup final to Arsenal in May grated with Conte and over preseason plenty of things seem to have chipped away at him.

Diego Costa‘s impending departure seems to be making Conte uneasy with Chelsea’s top scorer not returning to preseason training and totally banished from the first team. His replacement Alvaro Morata comes with a club-record price tag but Conte has already issued a warning to the Spanish striker that he needs to work on his fitness just a few days before the new season. Star playmaker Eden Hazard is recovering from ankle surgery and will miss the start of the season.

Add in to that shaky defensive displays against Bayern Munich and Inter Milan in preseason, plus a less than a stellar performance in the Community Shield, and there are definite issues for Conte to iron out, especially with Chelsea expected to push for the UEFA Champions League this season after their return to Europe.

That in itself will provide more tests for a Chelsea side who only had to focus on domestic competitions last season with a smaller squad than their PL rivals. It perhaps explains why Conte is pushing for more transfers in each and every press conference he appears. He needs plenty of top quality additions, and fast.

Virgil Van Dijk, Serge Aurier and Danny Drinkwater have all been mentioned as potential incomings in the next few days but don’t forget that last season Conte decided to make moves for David Luiz and Marcos Alonso on deadline day so Chelsea may decide to not do any business for the opening weeks of the season.

It’s not all doom and gloom with the starting XI still packed with quality, N'Golo Kante running the show in midfield, Willian buzzing around in attack and Gary Cahill standing tall, but the preparation for Chelsea’s title defense has been far from ideal. There’s no getting around it.

With Morata not up to speed, Chelsea’s two other new signings aren’t ready either with center back Antonio Rudiger returning late in preseason after Germany’s Confederations Cup success and new holding midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko recovering from a minor injury.

That means Conte will be down to the bare bones of his squad when the season kicks off this weekend against Burnley at Stamford Bridge with no Costa, Hazard, Bakayoko and now Nemanja Matic sold to Manchester United.

Yes, Chelsea’s business model of selling off talent at top prices when they no longer need them is admirable, plus their ability to sign talented youngsters to long-term deals and loan them out looks great but Nathaniel Chalobah leaving permanently for Watford, Nathan Ake sold to Bournemouth and Ruben Loftus-Cheek joining Crystal Palace on loan shows they were never going to be given a chance. Surely all three would have got more minutes this season given the increased number of games?

Circumstances allowed Chelsea to dominate last season and they did just that after the switch to a 3-4-3 formation defined their season.

But this season much more than formation change will define their title defense and success in Europe.

Conte not only has to contend with star players departing under a cloud (Costa) new players getting off to a slow start (Morata) and frustrations in the transfer market (Romelu Lukaku), but he must also realize that the likes of Luiz, Victor Moses and Pedro may not perform anywhere near the level we saw last season and they could return to their mean.

It’s highly unlikely the 2017-18 campaign will follow the same pattern of the 2015-16 season which saw Chelsea towards the relegation zone midway through the campaign and Jose Mourinho fired. Still, just two years removed from that nightmare it’s easy to understand why Chelsea’s fans are starting to wiggle around a little uneasily in their seat.

They’ve seen this script before and they don’t like it.

LIVE – Everton, AC Milan, Ajax in Europa League action

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Everton, AC Milan and Ajax, three of the bigger sides fighting for passage into the Europa League proper, find themselves 180 minutes from the group stage as the final round of qualifying kicks off on Thursday.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores ]

Everton have Croatian side Hajduk Split at Goodison Park for the first leg (3:05 p.m. ET), while Milan host Macedonian side KF Shkendija (2:45 p.m. ET) and Ajax are home to Rosenborg of Norway (2:45 p.m. ET).

[ MORE: Thursday’s transfer rumor roundup | Wednesday | Tuesday ]

Thursday’s notable Europa League fixtures

Panathinaikos vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:30 p.m. ET
Domzale vs. Marseille — 2:45 p.m. ET
Maritimo vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:30 p.m. ET

Previewing all 10 Premier League games – Week 2 (Video)

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Week 2 of the 2017-18 Premier League season is here. Ready?

[ LIVE: Stream Premier League live ] 

Below you will find 10 preview videos on each of the Premier League games this weekend with team news, score predictions and more on each encounter.

Enjoy.


Chelsea v. Tottenham

Everton v. Man City 

Newcastle v. Huddersfield 

Arsenal v. Stoke City

Liverpool v. Crystal Palace

Burnley v. West Brom

Southampton v. West Ham 

Leicester City v. Brighton

Watford v. Bournemouth

Swansea City v. Man United

From Madrid, to Paris, to Las Palmas, to Stoke: Jese loaned again

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Spanish forward Jese will attempt to relaunch his stuttering career in England after leaving Paris Saint-Germain to become the latest Champions League winner at Stoke.

The 24-year-old Jese joined Stoke on a season-long loan after failing to settle at PSG following his move from Real Madrid for a reported $29 million in August 2016. He spent the second half of last season on loan at Spanish team Las Palmas.

Stoke, a team from central England that is a perennial mid-table finisher in the Premier League, has become a haven for former high-profile players or one-time prodigies whose careers have stalled.

Since 2014, forwards Bojan Krkic and Ibrahim Afellay have joined from Barcelona while ex-Bayern Munich winger Xherdan Shaqiri has arrived from Inter Milan. They all have Champions League winners’ medals, as does ex-Manchester United midfielder Darren Fletcher, who was an offseason signing from West Bromwich Albion.

Most were back-ups for their clubs in their Champions League-winning campaigns, with Jese an unused substitute for Real in its victory over Atletico Madrid in the 2016 final.

“Jese was a man in demand when PSG made it clear they would allow him to leave on loan and we’re delighted he has chosen to join us,” Stoke chief executive Tony Scholes said. “He hasn’t had the happiest of periods in his career in Paris, but he’s still only a young man and is hungry to make a big impression in the Premier League.”

Jese will play out wide and is viewed as a replacement for Marko Arnautovic, who left Stoke this offseason to join West Ham. Stoke also sold Spanish striker Joselu to Newcastle for an undisclosed fee on Wednesday.

Stoke announced the arrival of Jese in a tweet that included audio clips from pundits in the British media saying the club lacked ambition and would struggle in the Premier League this season.

The team managed by Mark Hughes lost 1-0 at Everton in its opening league game of the season on Saturday.

Jese was a highly rated youngster at Real Madrid and made his La Liga debut under coach Jose Mourinho in 2012. He mostly played for Real’s reserve team and sustained a serious knee injury in March 2014, ruling him out for nine months.

He signed a five-year deal with PSG last summer but started only one league game, with another eight appearances as substitute.

Although technically skilled, Jese has not played so far this season and does not figure in coach Unai Emery’s plans — although the deal with Stoke does not include an option to buy him. At Las Palmas, Jese scored three goals in 13 games.

Jese is Stoke’s sixth signing of the summer transfer window.

First female ref set to take charge in Bundesliga

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BERLIN (AP) After a decade in Germany’s second division, Bibiana Steinhaus will make Bundesliga history this season by becoming the first woman to referee in the country’s top flight.

The 38-year-old police officer is among four referees to have been promoted by the German football federation (DFB) into the league’s elite group of 24.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Tuesday | Monday ]

“For every referee, whether man or woman, the dream is to be able to referee in the Bundesliga. I worked very hard toward that goal and had some setbacks over the past few years, so I’m very happy about the referees’ commission’s confidence,” Steinhaus said when her promotion was announced in May. “It shows that the performance-principle also applies in the field of referees.”

The daughter of a referee, she began by officiating women’s games for the DFB in 1999. Steinhaus then became a FIFA referee in 2005 and earned her place in the second division in 2007, as the first female referee in German professional football, before securing her latest promotion.

During that time, Steinhaus has handled women’s World Cups and European Championships, along with the gold medal match between the United States and Japan at the 2012 Olympics in London. Last June, she took charge of the women’s Champions League final between Lyon and Paris Saint-Germain.

[ MORE: Diego Costa releases statement — “I must return to Atletico Madrid” ]

Of her 80 matches in Germany’s second tier, all but one went off without a hitch for Steinhaus. After sending off Kerem Demirbay in 2015, the then-Fortuna Duesseldorf midfielder reportedly told her: “Women have no place in men’s football.”

Demirbay was roundly criticized for the remark and handed a three-game ban with two further games suspended. Duesseldorf also made Demirbay referee a girls’ game to ensure he understood the message.

Demirbay apologized both publicly and to Steinhaus directly for his comment, and said he was “very happy that she accepted my apology.” The 24-year-old player is likely to meet Steinhaus again this season if she takes charge of any games involving his current club, Hoffenheim.

However, Steinhaus is already aware that she may be treated differently to other referees. During Bayern Munich’s game against Chemnitzer FC in the German Cup last Saturday, she had one of her bootlaces untied by Bayern winger Franck Ribery as he pretended to put the ball in place for a free kick.

[ MORE: Luis Suarez out for a month with knee injury ]

She laughed it off by giving Ribery a couple of playful punches in response, but it is debatable whether the France winger would have untied the bootlace if he had been dealing with a male referee.

“She laughed, that’s positive,” Ribery told broadcaster ARD afterward. “It was a joke, but you always have to respect the other.”

It wasn’t Steinhaus’ first run-in with someone from Bayern. As the fourth official during a league game in 2014, she shrugged off Pep Guardiola‘s hand from her shoulder as the then-Bayern coach got animated over a decision.