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Three things learned from Man United’s win v. Chelsea

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MANCHESTER — Manchester United and Jose Mourinho have thrown an almighty spanner into the works of the Premier League title race.

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Just when is seemed like Chelsea were gliding towards the title with a halfhearted charge from Tottenham Hotspur lingering in the background, now Antonio Conte‘s men have seen their lead cut to four points after a clinical and professional display from Mourinho’s United as they beat Chelsea for the first time since October 2012.

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An early goal in each half from Marcus Rashford and Ander Herrera did the damage as United are now unbeaten in 22 games in the PL, the longest unbeaten run in the five major European leagues.

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Here’s what we learned from Old Trafford on a pivotal day in the title race and top four battle.


HERRERA POCKETS HAZARD

It was clear from the very start what Ander Herrera’s job was: stop Eden Hazard. He did.

Lining up as a right back for most of the game, the man who was sent off when these teams met in the FA Cup in March at Stamford Bridge.

Herrera then showed his class on the ball (after he appeared to handle the ball to get the move going but got away with it) to thread through an inch-perfect pass to Rashford who raced past David Luiz and finished calmly and scored the killer second goal. From a man who is dubbed the master tactician around the globe, Mourinho got this spot on and his key antagonizer on the pitch was pivotal to this masterplan.

Mourinho, perhaps more than anybody else, realizes the strengths and weaknesses of Hazard. Hailing him as ready to join Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi among the immortal players on the planet in 2014-15 when the Belgian wizard guided Chelsea to the title under Mourinho, the way in which Hazard struggled last season was a huge factor in Mourinho’s downfall at Stamford Bridge.

It seems like that hasn’t been forgotten as Herrera and Co. hacked Hazard to pieces in United’s 1-0 FA Cup defeat at Chelsea last month, prompting Conte to complain about the targeting of Hazard and saying “this is not football” for him. United did it again on Sunday.

Mourinho is demonized as the “king of anti-football” by most but when he pulls out unpredictable lineups and tactics like this, there are few that can do it better. He’s done it everywhere he’s gone and with United now four points off fourth-place Manchester City with a game in hand their top four hopes remain alive.

From Herrera on Hazard to playing two up front to occupy Chelsea’s back three and then bringing on Michael Carrick to deny Cesc Fabregas who came on as a sub, Mourinho got every single move in his chess game correct. The fact that he did it on Sunday to put a huge dent in Chelsea’s title bid, that’s something which will no doubt make him smirk slightly despite his obvious affinity with the west London club.


TITLE RACE BACK ON

With Chelsea’s second defeat in four games, the title race is well and truly back on.

The gap between second-place Tottenham Hotspur and leaders Chelsea is now just four points with six games remaining for each and Antonio Conte’s men can suddenly feel the pressure. Big time.

It seemed that way on Sunday.

For the first time, Chelsea are facing adversity as Thibaut Courtois went down injured in training this week, while Marcos Alonso hurt his knee in the warm up. Conte had to shuffle his pack with Kurt Zouma coming in and Cesar Azpilicueta moved to right-wing back and Chelsea looked cagey, especially in defense, as the team with the least changes in the PL this season.

During the game Chelsea switched things around to try and recover from a slow start with Victor Moses and Azpilicueta swapping flanks but all of a sudden those wings backs began to look like the square pegs in round holes many thought they were. For most of the season Chelsea have dodged adversity like the plague, with players over-performing and reinventing themselves.

The Blues are still in pole position with six games to go but the manner of their defeat at United, a game where they didn’t have a shot on target, suggests the nerves are starting to show.

When Chelsea face Spurs at Wembley Stadium in the FA Cup semifinal next week there will be more than a place in the FA Cup final at stake.

The momentum is all with Tottenham (seven-straight PL wins) at this point of the season and psychologically Chelsea must respond. With a home game against Southampton and then a trip to Everton, who have won eight in a row at home, coming up in their next two PL outings, Chelsea fans will be feeling anxious no matter how much they sung “we’re top of the league” at Old Trafford to calm their nerves.


RASHFORD COMES OF AGE

It was just over 13 months ago that Marcus Rashford scored his first two goals in the Premier League in a rousing 3-2 win against Arsenal on a Sunday at Old Trafford.

Sometimes we forget just how quick his ascension has been but he gave one of the biggest indicators yet that he is much more than a flash in the pan.

In the past 13 months he’s signed a new contract, scored plenty of important goals for United’s first team, won an FA Cup and EFL Cup, plus went to EURO 2016 with England. It’s been a whirlwind for the 19-year-old and all the time he’s had to handle rising expectations levels as well as Mourinho cajoling him in the press and on the training ground.

He scuffed an early effort wide and nearly got on the end of Jesse Lingard‘s first half cross as his movement was sharp, his pace in-behind worried Chelsea the entire game and with Lingard up top alongside him he had someone to feed off of and had more space to work in. Rashford, who has been wasteful in front of goal in recent weeks, lashed another effort into the side-netting in the second half, plus surged past David Luiz and shrugged off two challenges before Begovic saved. It was his work rate, pace and directness which troubled Chelsea all game long and he got a standing ovation late on as Zlatan Ibrahimovic replaced him.

Ibrahimovic (on the bench for the visit of Chelsea) has stolen the headlines with his 28 goals for United in all competitions this season but his role in Rashford’s development must not be forgotten. Remember that when Rashford takes over Zlatan’s mantle for the next decade at Old Trafford.

Three things learned from Chelsea’s win at Bournemouth

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BOURNEMOUTH — Chelsea will not be stopped.

The Blues went to Bournemouth and won 3-1 on Saturday, regaining their seven-point lead atop the Premier League table after Tottenham had momentarily cut it to four.

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Antonio Conte‘s men dealt with the pressure piled on them by Spurs and breezed past (in the end) a stylish yet leaky Bournemouth side to stay on track for the PL title with seven games to go.

Here’s what we learned from a sun-drenched evening down on the South Coast.


BIG BOYS DELIVER

Eden Hazard scored a sublime goal to put Chelsea 2-0 up at the Vitaliy Stadium. N'Golo Kante snapped into tackles and even had his first-ever Premier League assist. Thibaut Courtois made a stunning save early on to deny David Luiz scoring a horrendous own goal.

All of the stars who needed to step up for Chelsea did.

Bournemouth didn’t play badly, far from it. They created chances with Benik Afobe‘s shot hitting the inside of the post and coming out, plus Jack Wilshere (more on him further down) seeing plenty of the ball and creating problems for Chelsea.

Had Luiz’s nervous clearance just a minute into the game flown in, Chelsea would’ve been in for an uncomfortable encounter.

With the seven-point gap to second-place Tottenham regained for now, throughout the encounter on the south coast of England Chelsea’s fans sung”Tottenham Hotspur, we’re waiting for you!”

Spurs are waiting for a Chelsea slip up but it appears the Blues will keep doing just enough to grind out wins. The magic number of wins now stands at five and it seems like Chelsea cannot be stopped. If Spurs beat West Brom next Saturday in the early game and Chelsea slip up at Manchester United next Sunday then the title race could be back on. For now, it seems over.


COSTA CONUNDRUM

Diego Costa had one of those days against Bournemouth. He’s having them a lot lately.

Chelsea’s Spanish striker has now scored just four goals in his last 13 appearances for the Blues and his slack hold up play, failure to take chances and constant tumbles seem to be infuriating Conte.

It’s true that Costa’s sublime turn set up Chelsea’s opener as he sliced his shot and it deflected off Adam Smith and in. But apart from that, a few decent bits of hold up play were the only noticeable contributions he made. Costa missed a sitter in the 55th minute as Alonso’s perfect cross from the left flank found him at the near post but he completely missed his kick. His manager stood on the sidelines holding his head in disbelief. He’s been doing that a lot lately.

With Hazard having four of Chelsea’s last seven goals in the PL, he’s carrying this team offensively. Costa isn’t contributing much and seems low on confidence following the saga which rumbled on at the end of January amid reports of a back injury, training ground bust up and a big-money move to China.

It sounds slightly harsh to say after Costa has scored 49 goals in 81 PL games for Chelsea over the past three seasons, but perhaps Conte will perhaps be eager to move him on this summer if the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Antoine Griezmann and Alvaro Morata do become available.


WILSHERE WONDERFUL

Bournemouth always try to play through midfield, no matter the opposition or the obstacles before them. In midfield they have a player capable of controlling the tempo of any game on the planet: Jack Wilshere.

This was perhaps one of Wilshere’s best games in a Bournemouth shirt as he is now back in the starting lineup consistently and is at the hub of the Cherries midfield.

With his future still uncertain about next season — he’ll likely return to his parent club Arsenal but Bournemouth boss Eddie Howe wants him to stay permanently — Wilshere at least seems to be back to his best.

Flashes of brilliance throughout this game reminded us of the quality the England international possesses.

In the first half his sublime ball through to Ryan Fraser was followed up by a flicked ball with the outside of his right boot to play in Josh King for a breakaway. In the second half Wilshere clipped a ball down the line from an impossible body angle which picked out Afobe. He has the deft touches to confuse the most talented defenders and is able to caress the ball with ease, yet he does take chances in dangerous areas sometimes but is ironing out those mistakes.

Now, as has always been the case, he just needs to do it consistently and stay injury free. The next seven games will be huge for Wilshere if he can get back into the England squad this summer and then set himself up for a big season with Arsenal, Bournemouth or whoever in 2017-18.

At the age of 25 we have to stop talking about Wilshere’s potential. His class is undoubted. We just need to see it more.

Three things we learned from Chelsea’s win v. Man City

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LONDON — Chelsea beat Manchester City 2-1 at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday as Antonio Conte‘s side moved one step closer to winning the Premier League title.

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Eden Hazard‘s goals in the first half were enough to guide Chelsea past a lively City who missed numerous chances and left Pep Guardiola‘s men in an intense battle for the top four.

Here’s what we learned from a tight, tense clash in west London.


PRESSURE KICKING IN

Stamford Bridge was a nervous place as the closing minutes arrived on Wednesday, especially after their shock loss to Crystal Palace on Saturday which let Tottenham Hotspur back in the title race.

With Chelsea leading 2-1 against City, Conte looked to the crowd and urged them to get behind their team after yet another nervous lull. They responded but Chelsea limped over the line and Conte revealed afterwards that the pressure was intense in such a crucial moment of the campaign.

Thibaut Courtois saved late on from Sergio Aguero and then John Stones somehow shanked an effort over the bar from five yards out to let Chelsea off the hook.

If the game ended in a draw Conte and his players could have no complaints but, just as they have done for most of this season, Chelsea found a way to dig in and win.

At the final whistle their fans were relieved more than anything. With Spurs pulling off a miraculous late win at Swansea, Chelsea holding on for three points was a massive result both on the night and in the run-in. Chelsea still have all of the chips stacked in their favor in the title race.


MIXED CHELSEA

Eden Hazard finished superbly on two occasions in the first half to lead Chelsea to victory yet again as the Belgian playmaker stepped up to be the Blues’ main man.

Speaking after the game Conte was delighted with Hazard and revealed the message he has to his players.

“He is an important player and I think also his growing in his mentality. I think he is playing a really good season,” Conte said. “This season, for all my players and for me, we will remember this season if we win. If you don’t win, it’s a good season, good job, usually I like to say only those we win write the history.”

With Hazard coming up with the goals (albeit a weak shot which should’ve been saved and a rebound from a missed PK) he stood up when his team needed him, but Chelsea had some mixed displays suggesting some players aren’t coping with the run-in well.

Diego Costa, once again, had an off day and he’s now scored just four goals in his last 12 games in all competitions for Chelsea. His hold up play was off and his own fans often lambasted him from the stands. It would not be surprising if Chelsea’s leading scorer left for China, or elsewhere, in the summer.

In goal the usually unflappable Thibaut Courtois had a nightmare for City’s goal, pinging the ball straight to David Silva and showing a severe lapse in concentration at a pivotal moment in the game. If it wasn’t for City’s slack finishing then Courtois could’ve been punished for his error.

Even though Chelsea are cantering towards the title, the ruthlessness of Conte will surely mean he’ll remember these moments and act on them over the summer.


CITY FAR OFF

After the game Guardiola said he was “lucky to have his players” and praised Man City’s display, saying they “absolutely” were the better team.

Yet, this marked two unwanted milestones for the much-lauded manager: it was the first time he’s lost six games in a league season in his coaching career, plus it’s the first time he’s lost to the same team twice in a league campaign.

Speaking after the game Guardiola was pleased with the performance, even though finishing chances remains a huge issue.

“It’s an honor to have the amazing players I have. We come here to Stamford Bridge and play the way we have, with huge personality. I’m a lucky guy to manage these guys. It’s encouraging for the future. I’m optimistic,” Guardiola said. “It’s been like this all season but in the boxes we are not good enough. We created enough to score goals. It’s our problem. But my players play in one way and that’s why I want to be here – to help Man City for years. The people who are watching us must be proud of our fans. We did everything.”

Sergio Aguero and John Stones both missed chances, the latter a gilt-edge opportunity from five yards out with a minute to go which would’ve snatched a point.

Vincent Kompany‘s return from injury was a huge positive, while Guardiola praised Fabian Delph‘s return too, but the fact that City are 14 points behind leaders Chelsea shows how far they are behind where they should be.

Guardiola can take all the positives he wants from the performance but the project is far behind where many thought it would be when he took over last summer. The Spaniard has serious work to do this summer.

Three things we learned from Man City v. Liverpool

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Manchester City and Liverpool played out an entertaining 1-1 draw at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday as Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp saw their teams go all-out in their pursuit of securing a top four finish in the Premier League.

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James Milner‘s penalty kick was canceled out by Sergio Aguero’s equalizer as both teams created numerous chances but somewhat canceled one another out.

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Here’s what we learned from an intense, gripping battle in the rain in Manchester.


PK CALLS SHAPED THE GAME

Referee Michael Oliver will need a lie down after this game.

There were three big penalty calls which shaped the outcome of this match and Oliver got all three wrong. First, Georginio Wijnaldum went down under a challenge from Yaya Toure in the box and no penalty kick was given when it seemed like it should’ve been. Then at the other end a huge moment arrived as David Silva‘s cross found Raheem Sterling at the back post but James Milner slid in and made no contact with the ball. Again, Oliver should’ve awarded a penalty kick but he didn’t.

Then, at the start of the second when Oliver should’ve waved away a penalty kick call he awarded it. Gael Clichy slipped and then launched into a challenge on Roberto Firmino. Yes, it was a clumsy tackle but Clichy got the ball first. Milner stepped up to score the PK and put Liverpool ahead and perhaps Oliver got out of jail because City equalized and both managers will be fairly happy with the point.

That said, the way Guardiola was talking to Oliver and the other officials at the final whistle, it seemed like he was the unhappy manager. He had every right to react that way.


CLASSIC ENCOUNTER, STICKING TO PHILOSOPHIES

In the first half Pep Guardiola had a huge smile on his face as he embraced Jurgen Klopp on the sidelines. Respect.

Two of the greatest managers in the world right now have both found it tough going at times this season but there’s one thing we know about them both: they will die by their philosophies.

For better or worse they are stubborn and want their teams to play open, attacking soccer as they often neglect defense. That approach resulted in a humdinger of a game which ebbed and flowed back and forth as chances came and went and moments of brilliance in the final third were not finished off.

Two moments of magic encapsulated why Guardiola and Klopp must stick to what they know best.

First, Adam Lallana spurned a great chance as he launched a lung-bursting counter. He played the ball to Firmino, who passed to Wijnaldum who then lobbed the ball over City’s defense to Firmino and his clever flick with the outside of his boot had Lallana clean through six yards out. Lallana then missed the ball completely.

At the other end moments later Aguero and Sane combined with a wonderful backheel from the latter and then the loose ball fell to Kevin De Bruyne who hit the post.

It may not be perfect right now, especially in defense, but the longer Guardiola and Klopp stay with their respective teams the better they will get and the more pieces of the jigsaw they can put in place. In this day and age everyone wants to win now but both of these managers deserve extra time to get these projects fine-tuned and add the players they need

Finishing in the top four of the Premier League will allow them both to do that as the dangling carrot of the UEFA Champions League next season will help recruit world-class players. Maybe defenders will be a little scared to play for either of these teams though…


TOP-HEAVY CITY

Yaya Toure was overrun in midfield and it was a plan which didn’t work out for City.

Guardiola played Fernandinho at right back and left Toure in midfield on his own to try and shut down Lallana, Wijnaldum and Emre Can on his own. With Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva just in front of him, those two aren’t known for their defensive abilities and as Ilkay Gundogan told Rebecca Lowe at half time in the NBC studio, Guardiola prefers KDB in a deeper role due to his ability to keep the ball.

When Fernando came on and De Bruyne was shifted out wide, City looked more balanced and able to cope with Liverpool’s attack.

We are in March and Guardiola still hasn’t got the balance of his team right. City have so many great attacking talents but they are still top-heavy.

Much has been made about the defensive mistakes from the likes of John Stones and Claudio Bravo this season but City need to get better protection for their defense, especially against the better teams who can hurt them.

For more on Man City v. Liverpool listen to the latest 2 Robbies podcast.

Three things learned from Chelsea’s win vs. Man United

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LONDON — Chelsea beat Manchester United 1-0 in a fiery clash on Monday at Stamford Bridge to reach the FA Cup semifinals for the first time since 2013.

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N'Golo Kante‘s second half strike was enough to see Antonio Conte‘s Chelsea past a stubborn United outfit who were tough to break down despite Ander Herrera being sent off for two yellow cards after just 35 minutes.

With Conte and Jose Mourinho clashing on the sidelines — plus Chelsea’s fans giving Mourinho plenty of less than friendly “banter” throughout — it was a lively encounter as United gave up their FA Cup crown and Chelsea kept their hopes of doing the double alive.

Here’s what we learned from the Bridge.


CONTE AND MOURINHO ARE NOT FRIENDS

It’s safe to say Conte and Mourinho will not have shared a glass of wine at Stamford Bridge on Monday after the game. They seemed to ignore each other at the final whistle too.

A feud is brewing and it has all the ingredients to be an explosive one. This is the perfect storm for a managerial battle for the ages.

In the first half they clashed on the sidelines with Conte charging towards Mourinho after he felt Marcos Alonso made the most of a challenge and was obviously still incensed that Herrera had been sent off moments earlier. The duo were separated by the fourth official and referee Michael Oliver had to intervene to calm things down.

These actions were left over from the words they had at the end of Chelsea’s 4-0 win in October, where Mourinho felt they need to say something to Conte after he was whipping up the crowd in the latter stages of that match with United down and out and Chelsea cruising. They were then fueled further by Mourinho insinuating that Chelsea were a counterattacking team in the build up to this match. Conte didn’t like that. He and Mourinho don’t like each other, even if after the game word got out they shook hands in the tunnel area.

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Mourinho didn’t have the playing career Conte had (he was a key member of several stunning Juventus teams, winning five Serie A titles, an Italian Cup and a UEFA Champions League to his name) and now Conte is challenging Mourinho’s dominance of the managerial game. Charging up and down the touchline, Conte roared his team onto a cup semifinal. Mourinho spent most of his time complaining to the officials.

Conte has taken over largely the same squad Mourinho had for the first half of last season which failed him so badly. He was fired in December 2015 and Conte eventually arrived in the summer to transform Chelsea’s fortunes as they lead the PL by 10 points.

Mourinho was a god like figure at Chelsea for so long but now he’s not. The fans reminded him throughout the game. Chants of “you’re not special anymore!” and “Judas!” came his way. He responded by holding up three fingers to show how many PL titles he led Chelsea to.

Conte now has that hero status as he punches the air and his name is sung by the entire stadium. He is well on the way to delivering his first Premier League title at Chelsea this season and could now add the FA Cup to his collection after ousting Mourinho in yet another embarrassing occasion for the man who used to run the show at Stamford Bridge. Not anymore.


CHELSEA MORE THAN COUNTERATTACK

Before the game, that talk about Chelsea being a counterattacking team seemed to hurt Conte.

In fact, I asked him about Eden Hazard — who was sublime once again with a phenomenal turn on Chris Smalling in the first half which then led to a run and shot which David De Gea saved superbly — last Monday following the win against West Ham and about how deadly the Belgian has been on the counter this season. He made a point of stating how important Hazard has been in-between the lines and his overall play.

Conte said “I never, ever, ever train for the counterattack. Never prepare for the counterattack. Never.”

Kante’s goal was not on the counter and came from a sustained period of pressure. Of course it helped Chelsea had a one-man advantage for over 55 minutes in the victory against United, but they also came up against a team which set up in a 5-3-2 formation at times in the first half and settled well.

Chelsea turned the screw with Hazard getting Herrera sent off for two cynical fouls, plus Willian, Kante and Diego Costa causing countless problems. Costa missed two glorious chances in the second half with a clear header from a corner and then when Willian pulled a cross back. They weren’t at their clinical best but it didn’t cost them.


RASHFORD READY

The major bright spot for United was Marcus Rashford.

He wasn’t meant to be fit for this game and with Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial out injured, plus Zlatan Ibrahimovic suspended, that was a major selection issue for Mourinho.

Rashford, still just 19, miraculously started and looked like a kid man on a mission as Paul Pogba struggled to impact he game. Rashford was United’s biggest threat all night long. He chased down David Luiz and Gary Cahill throughout and made life incredibly difficult for Chelsea. It looked like he was capable of running faster than his body could, almost bursting from the seams.

In the second half his big moment to equalize arrived.

A rare miscue from Luiz saw the United academy product pounce. He raced free with Cahill sent one way, then the next, before he smashed a low shot on goal which Thibaut Courtois saved superbly with his legs. In that instance, that was a snapshot of the raw pace and enthusiasm Rashford possesses.

If he can regain the clinical finishing he showed in his debut season in 2015-16 when he burst onto the scene, he has all of the other attributes to start for United whether or not Ibrahimovic is around next season.