Countdown to Champions League final: Looking at Chelsea, back to front

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So much is stacked against Chelsea on Saturday, but given the season they’ve had, the Blues should be thrilled to have another shot at their first European Cup. They’ve survived a poor run under a new coach and some additional miles on some already old bodies to make their second final, with only Bayern Munich standing between owner Roman Abramovich and the title that’s motivated his soccer investment.

Unfortunately, Bayern will be playing at home. And, while Bayern’s dealing with suspensions, Chelsea’s seem potentially more devastating. Their best midfielder is out, and the team has little reasonable recourse should one of their central defenders (returning from injury) fail to make it to the final whistle.

Looking at … defense: Like Bayern, Chelsea’s dealing with key, shakeup-forcing absences. John Terry was caught kneeing Alexis Sanchez in the lower back during the semifinal leg in Barcelona. He’s banned, as is Branislav Ivanovic, who accumulated too many yellows (Ramires and Raul Meireles are also suspended).

That forces David Luiz and Gary Cahill into the lineup even through hamstring injuries have kept both central defenders sidelined for weeks. Given the alternative, Chelsea will take what they can get. A central defense of Michael Essien and Sam Hutchinson was a possibility before Luiz and Cahill returned to training earlier this week.

Wide, Chelsea will have Ashley Cole (left) and José Bosingwa. Cole’s performances against Barcelona showed he’s still capable of being the game’s best left back. Bosingwa, on the other hand, is somebody who wouldn’t be playing where it not for the suspensions. At one time Chelsea’s first choice on the right, Bosingwa’s defending has seen him relegated to the bench behind center half-turned-fullback Ivanovic. It’s not exactly the profile of somebody you’d want matched up with Franck Ribery.

Thankfully, Chelsea have Petr Cech as their last line of defense. Against Barcelona, Cech was his former self – a self that was often considered one of the world’s best goalkeepers. In the FA Cup final against Liverpool, he came up with a huge save on Andy Carroll to preserve the Blues’ trophy. He has the ability to keep Chelsea in this one should their defense break down, though he’ll have to be aggressive off his line to keep Bayern from making Mario Gomez into a difference-maker.

Looking at … midfield: John Obi Mikel has experienced a revival under Roberto di Matteo. After seeing his time disappear under Andre Villas-Boas, Mikel has been re-instilled as Chelsea’s first choice defensive midfielder. He’ll line up along with Frank Lampard in the 4-2-3-1’s deeper positions, with Lampard playing the shuttling role.

Lampard will also be the first cog in Chelsea’s counter attacks, with attacking midfielder Juan Mata the next level’s link. More known for his wide play than as a through-the-middle option, Mata has been drawn in by di Matteo’s shift to 4-2-3-1. Like Thomas Müller, however, his tendencies lead him to play higher up the pitch than a natural midfielder would do in the same role. A conservative Chelsea will give him a deeper base position; however, if the game opens up, he will act more in support of Didier Drogba.

Out wide, Chelsea’s ready to make a surprise choice. Ryan Bertrand, the left back-in-waiting, will be handed a start at left midfield, with Florent Malouda unable to go through injury. As others have opined, this seems a response to Bayern’s right flank, which features Arjen Robben and Philipp Lahm. Regardless, Bertrand’s European debut will be on the biggest stage of them all.

On the other side, Salomon Kalou will assume the spot normally occupied by Ramires. If Bayern starts Lahm at left back (with Rafinha on the right), Kalou and Bosingwa could be in trouble.

Looking at … attack: Didier Drogba’s going to have to do a lot of the work by himself, but if there’s one player who you’d want to take up that challenge, Drogba is it. Inspired spring performances against Barcelona, Liverpool and Tottenham have silenced speculation the 34-year-old Ivorian has lost a step. I mean, he definitely has, but it’s a bit foolish to talk about such things when Drogba’s scoring key goals in big games.

Even with Mata acting as a facilitator, Chelsea’s play to Drogba tends to be very direct and (often) very long. Part of the reason the Blues can sit so deep in defense is the faith they have in Drogba’s ability to win long balls and hold up play, letting their midfield get into attack. Without Ramires to serve as the second man in transition, Drogba might have to hold the ball a little more (and for a little longer), but with significant advantages against Jerome Boateng and (possibly) Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, Drogba can still have his way.

Likely Starting Lineup

G: Petr Cech
LB: Ashley Cole
CB: David Luiz
CB: Gary Cahill
RB: José Bosingwa
DM: John Obi Mikel
M: Frank Lampard
LM: Ryan Bertrand
AM: Juan Mata
RM: Salomon Kalou
F: Didier Drogba

Most dangerous player: Didier Drogba

Most likely to score: Drogba

Best creator: Frank Lampard

Key defender: David Luiz

Most important: Petr Cech

Back to front: Bayern Munich

Aston Villa hammer sloppy Fulham

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Fulham – Aston Villa was ridiculously one-sided as Villa won 3-0 and barely got out of second gear at Craven Cottage.

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Early goals from Jack Grealish and Connor Hourihane set Villa on their way and Tyrone Mings sealed the win early in the second half.

Fulham were woeful defensively from start to finish as they’ve now lost all three of their games back in the Premier League and have conceded 10 goals in the process. Villa have won both of their opening games without conceding.


3 things we learned: Fulham – Aston Villa

1. Fulham’s defense all over the place: Denis Odoi, Tim Ream and Michael Hector were the center backs in a three-man central defense and Fulham were all over the place. Players were all pointing at one another and nobody seemed to know what was going on. Scott Parker was distraught on the sidelines as Fulham are making the exact same defensive mistakes which saw them relegated in 2018-19. Their transfer policy has been different this time around but the way Fulham are playing is eerily similar. Obviously, they cannot keep conceding three goals a game.

2. Grealish dazzles as Watkins gives Villa new dimension: What more can we say about Grealish? After signing a new long-term contract at Villa he seems to be playing with the weight of expectation on his shoulders, just like he did at the end of last season. With Ollie Watkins (who deserved a goal and went close on multiple occasions) stretching the Fulham back line, that allowed Grealish, John McGinn and others plenty of space to operate it. They made the most of it.

3. Mitrovic will get chances: Even though Fulham looked awful at the back, they whipped in some great crosses from the flanks and Mitrovic, as always, was a handful. At some point Fulham will be better going for it in games and winning 3-2 and 4-3. They have more of a chance of staying in the Premier League if they attack compared to trying to sit back deeper and being more defensive.

Man of the Match: Jack Grealish – Scored early, involved in the second and always a threat. Odoi will be having many a nightmare about Grealish.


Aston Villa got off to the best possible start as a lovely ball over the top from John McGinn found Grealish and he dinked the ball past Areola and in.

Fulham’s defense was totally caught out as Parker seethed in his technical area and soon he was even angrier. Watkins played in Grealish down the left and he played it to McGinn who tapped the ball to Hourihane to slot home and make it 2-0.

The hosts got the ball wide on plenty of occasions and whipped crosses in for Mitrovic but Villa dealt with that threat easily and always looked dangerous when going forward. Watkins wasted a few good chances.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

At the start of the second half Villa went 3-0 up as Mings timed his run to perfection to prod home a free kick as Fulham’s defending was once again all over the place.

McGinn was denied by Areola as Villa were cutting through Fulham like a knife through hot butter time and time again.

It looked like Fulham were handed a path back into the game as Emiliano Martinez dropped a cross and Decordova Reid tapped home but VAR was used as Mitrovic pushed Ezri Konsa as the ball came in.

Grealish missed a good chance as Villa continued to create openings with Mings also going close and Joe Bryan clipped the crossbar at the other end as Martinez pulled off a good save.

Liverpool – Arsenal: How to watch, team news, odds

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Liverpool – Arsenal: Two heavyweights clash at Anfield on Monday (Watch live at 3pm ET online via Peacock) as both team have a perfect record with two wins from two so far.

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Reigning champions Liverpool have perhaps been more impressive as they’ve beaten upstarts Leeds United and then Chelsea, while Arsenal eased past Fulham but struggled past West Ham.

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When it comes to Jurgen Klopp and Mikel Arteta, their playing philosophy as managers could not be more different as Arsenal beat Liverpool on penalties at Wembley to win the Community Shield last month.

Here’s everything you need to know ahead of a massive early-season clash as Arsenal look to put down a marker.


Team news: Liverpool – Arsenal (INJURY REPORT)

Liverpool have center back Joe Gomez back fit after he missed the win at Chelsea last weekend, while this game will come too soon for fellow defender Joel Matip and captain Jordan Henderson is also not fit to feature. Thiago Alcantara is not in the squad due to an minor injury, while new signing Diogo Jota is on the bench.

Arsenal have Kieran Tierney back fit for this game, which is a big boost. Gabriel, Bukayo Saka, Dani Ceballos and Sead Kolasinac all drop to the bench as Tierney, Mohamed Elneny, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and David Luiz start. Pablo Mari, Calum Chambers, Gabriel Martinelli and Shkodran Mustafi all remain out injured.


Odds and ends (full odds provided by our partner, PointsBet)

Understandably Liverpool are the heavy favorites (-210) given their long unbeaten home record at Anfield. That said Arsenal (+520) do seem a high price after they beat Liverpool during ‘Project Restart’ and also in the Community Shield final. The draw at +360 is intriguing and the value perhaps lies there.

PointsBet is our Official Sports Betting Partner and we may receive compensation if you place a bet on PointsBet for the first time after clicking our links


Liverpool – Arsenal prediction

Arsenal have a lot more grit under Arteta and they ware capable of bending but not breaking. This is a huge test for them, though, and Gabriel against the fluid front three of Salah, Firmino and Mane will be his biggest test yet. Arsenal have the attackers to make the most of any more slack defending from Liverpool but I expect Klopp’s side to have just too much in midfield and attack. Liverpool 2-1 Arsenal.


How to watch Liverpool – Arsenal stream and start time

Kickoff: 3pm ET Monday
TV Channel: Peacock
Online: Stream via NBCSports.com

Fulham – Aston Villa: How to watch, start time, team news, prediction, odds

Fulham - Aston Villa
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Fulham – Aston Villa: How early is too early to call a game “must-win” in the Premier League? Perhaps we will find out on Monday (Watch live at 12:45 pm ET, online via Peacock), when bottom-of-the-table Fulham host Aston Villa at Craven Cottage.

FULHAM – ASTON VILLA STREAM LIVE

Scott Parker’s side has had a torrid start to life back in the PL — not at all dissimilar to the way their last stint ended — and find themselves with zero points and seven goals conceded after their first two games. Losing 3-0 to Arsenal on the opening day of the season wasn’t altogether surprising, but following that defeat with four more goals conceded to Leeds United last weekend will undoubtedly have done a number on the Cottagers’ confidence.

Villa, on the other hand, have played just once and secured a 1-0 victory over Sheffield United earlier this week. A win on Monday would see Dean Smith’s side start the season with back-to-back PL victories for the first time since the 1999-2000 season.

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Here is everything you need to know ahead of Fulham – Aston Villa this Monday with team news, odds, stream link and more.


Team news: Fulham – Aston Villa (INJURY REPORT)

Fulham – No injuries or suspensions

Scott Parker makes three changes as Tom Cairney, Tim Ream and Bobby Decordova-Reid start.

Aston Villa – OUT: Bjorn Engels (thigh), Tom Heaton (knee), Wesley (knee), Ahmed Elmohamady (thigh)

Villa are unchanged from the team which beat Sheffield United last time out.


What they’re saying: Fulham – Aston Villa

Scott Parker, on a “must-win” game: “I don’t see it as drastic as a must-win. We want to win. I know it’s either high or low in a drastic world, but we need to stay level and take realism of where we are in the campaign and where we are as a team. We will try everything we can to take some points and be up to the challenge. I don’t think we’re the only team at this present moment in time who have let in some goals in the first two games. It’s not ideal, of course not. Villa at home on Monday is a game we’re going to try to get three points.”

Dean Smith, on needing another signing: “We’re always looking in the market, we’re probably one short in the squad at the moment so we’ll keep looking at that. I think there’s seven days left until the window shuts internationally, another seven days domestically. Our sporting director at the moment has got his finger on the pulse, hopefully we might get one more in and maybe a couple more out.”


Odds and ends (full odds provided by our partner, PointsBet)

This one is just about a coin flip with Fulham (+185) ever so slight underdogs to Villa (+150). In a game that could go either way like this one, the draw (+225) might just be the safe middle ground.

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Prediction: Fulham – Aston Villa

There’s not much to separate these two sides right now, and there likely won’t be much ground between them come the season’s final table. There should be a few goals, but that’ll be more down to poor defending than excellent attacking quality from either side. Fulham 2-2 Villa.


How to watch Fulham – Aston Villa stream and start time

Kickoff: 12:45 pm ET Monday
Online: Stream via Peacock

Transfer news: Kante to Man United; Dest to Barcelona

Kante to Manchester United
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In the latest transfer news N’Golo Kante to Manchester United is reported, while USMNT right back Sergino Dest to Barcelona is almost complete.

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Let’s take a look at some of the latest juicy rumors as we’re in the final week of the transfer window.


Kante to Manchester United couldn’t really happen… could it!?

N’Golo Kante is still among the finest holding midfielders in the world, which is why this report from the Daily Mirror seems particularly outlandish.

That said, Kante, 29, has been linked with a move away from Chelsea for most of this transfer window as the French central midfielder continues to be a man in demand. Per the report, Kante would have to take a pay-cut on his $385,000 per week wages.

Frank Lampard and Chelsea know that Kante’s value is extremely high, on and off the pitch, right now and they will also know his value may be at its peak. At times over the last 12 months he hasn’t quite been himself but he’s still been consistently excellent.

Is it time for Chelsea to cash in on Kante to help offset their incredible $300 million spending spree this summer?

Pretty much everyone who watches Chelsea knows this would be a bad idea. If you think Chelsea’s defending has been bad, think how bad it will be without Kante plugging as many gaps as he can in front of the defense. Chelsea fans everywhere are shuddering right now.

Kante to Manchester United would make sense for the Red Devils who still look badly imbalanced and need a destructive holding midfielder to get their dangerous attacking quartet of Rashford, Greenwood, Martial and Fernandes in the game more.

We would all be extremely surprised if Chelsea sell Kante to a direct rival, but stranger things have happened.

Sergino Dest to Barcelona almost complete

USMNT right back Sergino Dest to Barcelona is edging closer as the Dutch-American defender is said to have agreed personal terms with Barca.

Dest, 19, was chased by both Bayern Munich and Barcelona but his chosen the latter after Ajax agreed a $26.7 million fee with Barcelona.

Per a report from Sky Italy, Dest has agreed a five-year contract at Barcelona and will travel to Spain to complete the deal.

With Nelson Semedo sold to Wolves, Barcelona need a new right back and new head coach Ronald Koeman looks set to make Dest the first signing he has chosen. While manager of the Dutch national team Koeman wanted Dest to switch allegiances from the USMNT but he stuck with the nation he has played for throughout his youth international career despite being born in the Netherlands.

Dest will get plenty of opportunities to play at Barcelona and it will be intriguing to track his development.