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Outside noise distracting Chelsea ahead of pivotal stretch

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LONDON — Chelsea have slipped to fifth place in the Premier League ahead of their clash with West Bromwich Albion on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) as the Blues aim to not lose a second-straight home league game for the first time since 2011.

[ MORE: Chelsea announce legends match v Inter ]

The reigning champs are not in a good place with injuries to key players ravaging their squad and manager Antonio Conte under pressure amid scrutiny over new signings, his future beyond this season and his demeanor in press conferences and on the sidelines.

With Chelsea facing Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League last 16 next week, plus having games against top four rival Manchester United and runaway league leaders Manchester City coming up, it is a pivotal stretch of games as they aim to stay in the top four race and in the discussion for silverware this season.

Speaking exclusively to Pro Soccer Talk fresh from organizing a Chelsea legends match against Inter Milan this May, NBC Sports analyst and former Chelsea star Graeme Le Saux believes that the outside noise concerning Conte’s future at the club beyond this season, plus speculation regarding players leaving and arriving at Stamford Bridge is having an impact.

“Anything from outside is a distraction, as much as you try to block it out. Whether it is players coming, players going, whether there is talk about the manager, all of those things, they can have an impact,” Le Saux said. “But ultimately the way to answer that is showing the unity and the level of the performance you would expect from the talent that a team like Chelsea has. It’s going to be a fantastic month for them, Barcelona in the Champions League, big games against United and City. Those are the sorts of games that quality players say, ‘you know what, this is why I’m at a club like Chelsea.'”

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But what has been the main problem for the current Chelsea squad this season?

The shocking defeats to Bournemouth and Watford in their past two Premier League games (both by three-goal margins) certainly haven’t helped as Conte’s side have looked a shadow of the title-winning team from last season.

After a sloppy start to the season they recovered well and looked nailed on to challenge Man United for second place in the PL table. But right now you sense that it’s a case of one step forward and two steps back for the Blues.

“There’s some inconsistency this season and some disappointment in a few the performances which have been uncharacteristic,” Le Saux said. “Any team, you take comfort from your worst performances if they’re not too bad, if that makes sense? If you lose a game and you lose it 1-0 or a late goal or something, you’re not happy but at least you can say ‘look, we did everything right, but we were unlucky at the end of the game.’ But there have been a couple of performances more recently that are uncharacteristic of the team. The energy was down a bit, not quite firing on all cylinders. Between now and the end of the season, the club have to find that level again and finish strongly. FA Cup, they are going well in that. In the league, they are still in a strong position.”

Tore Andre Flo, another Chelsea legend who will play his part against Inter Forever in May, urged the current players to get their act together fast with huge games coming up in February and March in Europe and in the Premier League.

“It is a very big couple of months coming up now. Obviously the results haven’t been quite as good as last season. Last season was an amazing season but they are still showing they can do it and hopefully they can find the form altogether and over a period of time they can create some good results. If they can find good form now it would be super, because these big games are coming up.”

Le Saux added that the main problem for Chelsea, like the rest of the Premier League, is simply one thing: Manchester City.

“Part of the problem is that everyone is being compared to Manchester City. You can see that they are just exceptional. They are exceptional by any standard anywhere in world football this year,” Le Saux said. “When you look back in all of the seasons of the Premier League, you think, ‘has there been a team which has played with such a different identity to everyone else, in such a way which stands out?’ Looking at everybody else, they’ve all suffered losses which you can’t quite believe. The top six are judged by that standard Man City have set. It is always going to be a challenge, clearly for Antonio it is a period of time where all that noise from outside has got to be filtered and the team have to go out and show character and performance, you sort of think ‘actually, that’s the Chelsea we saw last year and were so successful.'”

Spanish police dismantle match-fixing scheme in 3rd, 4th tiers

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MADRID (AP) Spanish police have dismantled a match-fixing scheme involving players and clubs in the country’s lower divisions.

Authorities said more than 20 people have been detained as part of the police operation launched on Monday, including players, although no names were immediately disclosed.

The matches under suspicion were in the third and fourth divisions this season and last season.

The match-fixing scheme reportedly involved Chinese betting sites.

The Spanish league said the operation was based on information collected by its analysts about suspicious activities.

UCL preview: Chelsea host Barcelona; Bayern vs. Besiktas

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  • Chelsea vs. Barcelona, at Stamford Bridge
  • Bayern Munich vs. Besiktas, at Allianz Arena
  • Champions League round of 16 resumes on Tuesday

[ UCL: Spurs fight back to draw Juventus | Liverpool thrash Porto in leg 1 ]

Chelsea, mired in some of their worst form since the disastrous 2015-16 season, welcome a Barcelona side enjoying one of the best six-month runs of results in the famed club’s entire history. The Blues have won just four of their last 12 games across all competitions, while the Blaugrana have lost once in 38 games.

On the plus side, Chelsea enter Tuesday’s colossal clash as winners of their last two games — back-to-back wins for the first time in 2018 — having outscored the likes of West Bromwich Albion and Hull City by a combined 7-0. Star striker Alvaro Morata returned to action against Hull after five weeks out with a back injury, thus Antonio Conte has something of a selection dilemma on his hands with the Spaniard perhaps only partially fit, and Olivier Giroud racking up a goal and three assists in the last two games, his first starts for the club.

Barcelona, meanwhile, have conceded just two goals in their last nine games (all competitions) and even managed to overturn their lone defeat, to Espanyol, and advance to the Copa del Rey semifinals (and eventually final). Despite losing Neymar in the summer, Barca mostly cruised through their Champions League group, only dropping points in draws away to Juventus and Olympiacos. Lionel Messi has, strangely, never scored a goal in his eight career appearances against Chelsea, a record which has been spoken about at length in the build-up to Tuesday — similarly to the goal-less record which plagued him against Juve goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, whom he finally bested back in September.

[ MORE: Man City win big away to Basel | Real Madrid 3-1 PSG ]

In the other round-of-16 first-leg matchup on Tuesday, five-time (soon-to-be six) defending Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich host surprise winners of Group G, Besiktas, ahead of the likes of Monaco, RB Leipzig and Porto.

Since taking over on an interim basis (through the end of the season), Bayern boss Jupp Heynckes has won 21 of 22 games of which he’s been in charge, including four of six games during the group stage en route to finish second behind Paris Saint-Germain, while also racing out to a 19-point lead back home in Germany.

Aguero involved in clash with Wigan fan after FA Cupset

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MANCHESTER, England (AP) Sergio Aguero was involved in a confrontation with a Wigan fan as ugly scenes marred the end of the third-division side’s shock FA Cup win over Manchester City on Monday.

[ MORE: Wigan shock Man City, the world and themselves ]

Fans spilled on to the pitch at DW Stadium as the host celebrated its 1-0 fifth-round win against the runaway English Premier League leader.

Supporters from both clubs were involved in disturbances, while television pictures appeared to show a home supporter and striker Aguero involved in a physical exchange.

Aguero appeared to hit the supporter after the fan said something to the player, and Aguero had to be held back by his City teammates.

[ MORE: Money from Wembley replay “will support Rochdale for 2 or 3 years” ]

Advertising hoardings were also ripped out and thrown as a pitch invasion by Wigan fans got out of hand while the defeated City players were being escorted off the pitch.

Footage also appeared to show objects, including an advertising board, being thrown at police officers by fans in the City end.

Wigan shock themselves: “Not sure how it feels, hasn’t sunk in yet”

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Wigan Athletic didn’t just shock Manchester City with their FA Cup fifth-round slaying of the runaway Premier League leaders; nor did they merely shock the rest of the footballing world; they also shocked themselves into disbelief, according to defender Dan Burn.

[ MORE: Goodbye, quadruple! Wigan bounce 10-man City from FA Cup ]

Speaking following Monday’s triumph over Pep Guardiola‘s quadruple-chasing side at the DW Stadium, Burn admitted he himself didn’t know what to make of the night that would undoubtedly highlight and change his own professional career — quotes from the BBC:

“Not sure how it feels, hasn’t sunk in yet. It was a really tough game. The belief was always there. We’ve got Will Grigg, who does what he keeps doing.

“We pride ourselves on our clean sheets. We had a couple bad results before, so we wanted to prove ourselves, so a clean sheet against the best team in England is great.

“Once we scored, the fans really got behind us, just knew we needed to hang on. It was the longest 10 minutes of my life.”

[ MORE: Money from Wembley replay “will support Rochdale for 2 or 3 years” ]

Manager Paul Cook was able to articulate his happiness and pride only slightly better — “It feels great” — but offered the highest of praises to his players, whom “had to ride [their] luck at times” during the game, and gave everything they had to the cause, because that’s the only way you beat a team like Man City:

“It feels great. It’s such a severe test. They’re such a strong side and move the ball so well. We had to ride our luck at times and the sending off is always a big incident.

“Our lads deserve credit for their work and some of the blocks they made were outstanding, and to beat Man City you have to do that.”