All aboard the Rafamobile! Benítez suddenly coach of Chelsea (for now)

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Hours after they parted ways with the man who won them their first European title, Chelsea’s moved on to a man whose reputation hinges on his UEFA Champions League success.

With the appointment of former Liverpool manager Rafa Benítez today, Chelsea’s replaced Roberto Di Matteo, if only in the short-term. Given the job of seeing out the 2012-13 season, Benítez appears to be doing little more than keeping a seat warm for Roman Abramovich’s true ambition – Pep Guardiola.

Here’s the club’s statement:

Chelsea Football Club can confirm Rafael Benitez has been appointed interim first-team manager until the end of the season.

The owner and the Board believe that in Benitez we have a manager with significant experience at the highest level of football, who can come in and immediately help deliver our objectives.

The 52-year-old Spaniard is due to meet the players at the training ground in Cobham tomorrow

Those objectives are unlikely to include UEFA Champions League, where Chelsea’s fate now depends on Juventus losing in Donetsk on matchday six. Of course, that could happen, and if it does (while Chelsea beats Nordsjaelland), the Blues will have a man whose reputation has come to rest on his Champions League accumen. If not, there’s always the league, two domestic cups, and Europa League.

It’s a good appointment for everybody except Di Matteo, who likely would be in a job today had Benítez been either unavailable or unwilling to subjugate himself to a temporary position.

Such has been Benítez’s fall. After guiding Liverpool to second in the Premier League in 2008-09, he allowed Liverpool to slip to seventh place, the failure to make Champions League beginning a slide from which the club’s still recovering. Benítez’s subsequent inability to replace José Mourinho at Inter Milan meant the former Valencia boss’s best route to a marquee job was a situation like Chelsea’s.

Let’s also not forget the nature Benítez’s failings in Milan, because they’re particularly relevant to his potential success at Chelsea. We should take managerial hubris and put it aside, because Benítez has likely been dissuaded of notions that had him shrug off his part in Liverpool’s downfall. The state he left Internazionale in was bad enough.

There he inherited an old team coming off a Mourinho-led European title and not only changed how they played but ran his veterans into the ground. There’s more than one similarity to be drawn between that Inter side and Benítez’s new charge. By the time the Nerazzurri took off for 2011’s Club World Cup, they were depleted, mutinous, and out of chances for their ill-fitting coach.

While Benítez is not directly replacing Mourinho in London, he will again be faced with expectations raised by the Special One. Even after Di Matteo delivered the one prize José couldn’t claim, standards at Stamford Bridge reflect the demands of a man five years gone. If Benítez is going to retain his job, he has to claim the league, FA Cup, or Europa League. And as Di Matteo’s travails show, even that might not be enough.

Because if Benítez is to win silverware during his Stamford Bridge residency, it will likely be through the same pragmatism that characterized his most successful times at Anfield. It’s not ugly, it’s not anti-football, but it’s also not Barcelona. And for whatever misguided reasons Roman Abramovich is using to fuel his decisions, Chelsea’s owner won’t be happy until his team is playing the brand of soccer he’s wanted since the day he bought the club.

The lack of style undid Mourinho. It undid Di Matteo. And it will likely undo Benítez, regardless of results.

The one thing that could keep Benítez in London past May 2013 is if Guardiola goes elsewhere, because for everything we’ve heard about Abramovich’s lust of Pep, we’ve heard little of reciprocation from the former Barça boss. We know he prefers England. We know he prefers London. We also know that he’s unlikely to make any decisions until early-2013, if not later.

All of which makes the treatment of Di Matteo more curious. Replacing a club icon with a former rival is precarious enough (though Chelsea fans will likely recognize Benítez’s qualities). To do so when it’s unclear if lack of a striker or thin central midfield are the real problems hints Di Matteo was never going to be embraced by Abramovich. It didn’t matter that Di Matteo’s Champions League troubles came in a group with two of the top eight teams in Europe. That he lost provided Arbamovich an out from a man he never truly wanted, even if it made more sense to keep him until the Guardiola question was resolved.

With no answers in sight, Chelsea fans are best served concentrating on the present. They aren’t the best team in England, but they’re capable of competing for the title. Perhaps Benítez will bring something new out of them. Cup competitions have taken on a special meaning for the Blues. They’re still alive in both. And even if Europe only offers Europa League, the team has enough young, exciting talents to make that congestion-inducing tournament worth a Chelsea-supporters’ time. There’s still plenty of light in this 2012-13 tunnel.

Roberto Di Matteo won’t be driving them through it, but it’s time to move on. All aboard the Rafamobile.

Sargent describes how it felt to score first Bundesliga goal

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Less than 12 months after signing his first professional contract, Joshua Sargent accomplished his dream of playing in the Bundesliga. Seconds later, he was on the scoreboard.

Just 88 seconds after coming on, Sargent provided a header to put the ball across the goal line and score his first Bundesliga goal in a Werder Bremen 3-1 win over Fortuna Dusseldorf. Sargent found the back of the net again two weeks later, against strong opposition in RB Leipzig.

[READ: “Pity” Martinez pictured in New York]

Following a short trip back to his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, Sargent joined up with his teammates in South Africa for some warm-weather training during the Bundesliga winter break.

Sargent is looking for another taste of first team action as Werder Bremen resumes the Bundesliga season at Hannover on Saturday. Should Sargent continue to get regular minutes for either or both the Werder Bremen first or second teams, expect him to get another call-up to the U.S. Men’s National Team for its European-based friendly matches in March.

‘Pity’ Martinez arrives in U.S., even with no official ATL UTD announcement

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Atlanta United hasn’t officially announced the signing of Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez, but the talented Argentine attacker is in the U.S. now anyway.

Martinez posted a selfie of himself at Times Square in New York City, likely getting his first taste of anonymity after a star-studded run with River Plate in Buenos Aires.

[READ: Bielsa admits to spying all his “rivals”]

Following the rescheduled second leg of the Copa Libertadores final, Martinez and River Plate both confirmed to media post game that he was departing River Plate for Atlanta United, but despite this, the MLS club still hasn’t made the new official on their end. It’s unclear what the hold up is, whether it is transfer fee, agents fee, or Designated Player related. For the record, the LA Galaxy announced in December that it was re-signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic to a Designated Player contract, knowing all along that they couldn’t start the next MLS season with more than three DPs.

Previous reports out of Argentina have stated that Martinez’s transfer to Atlanta United could cost the club as much as $14 million including the base transfer fee to River Plate, agents fees, and potential add-ons.

A year ago, Atlanta United announced its club record signing, Ezequiel Barco, then-19, during the MLS Superdraft, but there was no Designated Player announcement at the league’s annual weekend symposium this year. Atlanta United has a challenge on its hands if Miguel Almiron isn’t sold to Europe this offseason. Under current MLS rules, it can’t have more than three players signed to Designated Player contracts.

Perhaps it could loan Barco, who struggled at times last season, or loan Martinez elsewhere, because Josef Martinez seems a lock to be in Atlanta for the foreseeable future.

Either way, Pity Martinez’s arrival in the U.S. could be a sign that an announcement could come soon from Atlanta United.

Reports: Chelsea edging closer to signing Higuain

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The transfer window appears to be heating up as we head towards the close in the next two weeks, with the first of many dominoes about to fall.

According to The Telegraph and reports out of Italy, Chelsea have now made an official offer to Juventus for Gonzalo Higuain, who is currently on-loan with AC Milan. If confirmed, the report states that Chelsea will effectively take over Higuain’s loan for six months, and then the Premier League side will have the option to keep Higuain on loan for another 12 months or buy him outright.

[READ: Derby County stuns Southampton in FA Cup]

Higuain and Chelsea coach Maurizio Sarri have history, as Higuain had arguably his best club season under the Italian manager at Napoli. Higuain scored 36 goals in Serie A, by far the top scorer in the league in 2016, which led to a $102.6 million move north to Juventus. However, it’s been an up and down time in the North of Italy for the Argentine. He scored 24 goals with Juve in his first year with the club but finished with just 16 last year before the Italian giants signed Cristiano Ronaldo, which effectively meant Higuain had to look for a new home.

News that a deal is close to completion is a big turnaround from a few weeks back, when even as Higuain struggled at Milan, the two sides didn’t seem close to breaking apart, and Juventus reportedly was insistent on recouping some of their transfer fee. However, following the Italian Super Cup on Wednesday, it appears both sides are ready to move on.

Higuain coming to Chelsea may be the first domino to fall. With Sarri getting his preferred striker, that frees up Alvaro Morata to return to his native Spain, although he’s reportedly set to join Atletico Madrid, instead of his former side Real Madrid. In addition, Chelsea has been shopping Michy Batshuayi, the top target for AS Monaco, where he would reunite with Thierry Henry, his former assistant coach with the Belgian National Team. The Telegraph reported that Chelsea wanted to recoup some of the $51.5 million it spent on Batshuayi but at this point, it’s looking more likely that he’ll move to Monaco on-loan or for a cut-rate fee, with his current loan to Valencia likely to be terminated shortly.

In Italy, the next domino to fall is Genoa’s Krzysztof Piątek, who is set to take Higuain’s place at AC Milan. Piatek has been the revelation of Serie A this season, with the Polish international scoring 13 Serie A goals in 19 games, just one goal behind Ronaldo. It’s unclear what the transfer fee will be for Genoa – Piatek joined the club last summer – but it’s likely to be a big one considering the premium on goals these days.

Once Higuain moves and the dominoes fall, we’ll see how it affects the rest of the Premier League, with other players becoming available as the transfer window enters its final weeks.

Henry’s Monaco draws 1-1 with Vieira’s Nice in French league

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PARIS (AP) Old friends Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira had to split the points as Monaco drew 1-1 with French Riviera rival Nice on Wednesday in a scrappy match featuring three video reviews.

Winger Allan Saint-Maximin put Nice ahead in the 30th minute and 17-year-old defender Benoit Badiashile equalized shortly after halftime, becoming the youngest scorer in the French top flight this season. Badiashile’s header from a corner was deemed to have crossed the line by the use of goal-line technology.

[MORE: Ligue 1 scores, schedule]

Henry and Vieira are in their first seasons coaching in France, but they go way back and hugged warmly before kickoff.

Living next to each other in London, they blossomed with Arsenal and were part of the famed “Invincibles” side which went a whole season unbeaten in the Premier League. The Frenchmen also won the 1998 World Cup and the European Championship in 2000, as well as playing together in the 2006 World Cup final.

Having started their illustrious careers as teenagers on the French Riviera – Henry with Monaco and Vieira with Cannes – they have come full circle as coaches.

Monaco had chances through Aleksandr Golovin and Rony Lopes, only for Nice to strike against the run of play following a sloppy mistake from Youssef Ait Bennasser. After he gave the ball away in midfield, Saint-Maximin took it off him easily and shrugged off defender Jemerson before shooting confidently past goalkeeper Diego Benaglio.

The goal was awarded before being checked and confirmed by referee Benoit Bastien using VAR. Moments before the interval, he consulted VAR again to send off Nice striker Ihsan Sacko for a late challenge on defender Benjamin Heinrichs.

“There’s a lot of frustration and questions about the decisions. The red card is very harsh,” Vieira said. “It wasn’t a dangerous action and it had a negative impact on us.”

Bastien used VAR for the third time to award a penalty in the 75th, ruling that Badiashile impeded right back Youcef Atal when images suggested Atal initiated contact with Badiashile before tumbling down.

Benaglio guessed correctly to keep out Saint-Maximim’s spot kick. Monaco almost won it near the end when Radamel Falcao hit the post with a curling effort.

“A point isn’t enough for us, but we could have been sat here talking about a defeat,” Henry said. “I have no opinion about the VAR, those are their decisions. Diego saved the penalty – so much the better for us.”

Monaco has not won at home this season and is 19th – only one point ahead of last-place Guingamp, which beat Rennes 2-1 at home.

OTHER MATCHES

VAR also played a key role elsewhere as Saint-Etienne equalized with a penalty in a 2-1 home win against Marseille.

Referee Antony Gautier awarded the penalty in the 56th after goalkeeper Steve Mandanda upended forward Wahbi Khazri.

Gautier then changed his mind after the linesman signaled Khazri was offside when receiving the pass, but further confusion ensued as he then consulted VAR and re-awarded the penalty, which was confidently tucked away by Khazri.

There was no debating Khazri’s late winner, struck ferociously from 20 meters past Mandanda. It was his 12th league goal of the season and leapfrogged Saint-Etienne over Lyon into third place ahead of their local derby on Sunday.

Netherlands midfielder Kevin Strootman headed Marseille ahead early on from Florian Thauvin‘s excellent cross. The defeat increases the pressure on ninth-place Marseille and its coach Rudi Garcia after a string of poor performances have left fans disgruntled and angry.

In other matches, forwards Moussa Dembele and Nabil Fekir netted late on as Lyon rallied to draw 2-2 at Toulouse.

Nimes moved into 11th spot after winning 1-0 at home to Nantes.