Narratives invert after Chelsea routs Aston Villa

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After one of the most lopsided matches you’ll ever witness at soccer’s top level, Chelsea is no longer the shriveling shell of a European champion emasculated by a shaming trip abroad. And Aston Villa is no longer the feel-good story of a consolidating youth movement smolten by an up-and-coming coach. After 90 minutes and eight goals Sunday at Stamford Bridge, those narratives were destroyed, Chelsea handing Villa an 8-0 thrashing in London.

With a score that lopsided, it goes without saying it could have been worse. Chelsea put 15 shots on target to Villa’s one. They also had a penalty kick saved by Brad Guzan, the Villa keeper’s last act of defiance after goals from Fernando Torres, David Luiz, Branislav Ivanovic, Frank Lampard, Ramires, Oscar, and Eden Hazard gave the American a platoon of tormenters to take to the team psychologist. Villa was so bad, they let Ramires score twice, the Brazilian’s 90th minute goal mercifully ending the embarrassment.

The performance crushes any notion Aston Villa are on the rise. They came into the match in 16th place, only three points above the drop, but having gone undefeated in six, Villa was thought to be the ascendent. Now you look back at their run and see a League Cup win, games with Reading, Queens Park Rangers, and Stoke, and a home draw with a brand-over-substance Arsenal.

But Aston Villa’s win last week at Liverpool — a 3-1 victory that saw Christian Benteke and the Villa counter bayonet the Reds — would have been enough to carry hope into today’s match. Even if their unbeaten run was built more on wish-casting than results, the victory at Anfield was enough to expect better on Sunday. Have any expectations been so devastatingly ill-placed?

But just as the narrative of a surging Villa was eviscerated at Stamford Bridge, so was the Chelsea fans’ worry after a demoralizing trip to Japan. There they lost the Club World Cup, leaving the few (mostly South American) players who care about the competition bawling on the field as Corinthians celebrated a world title. That tactics sheets pulled from the team’s garbage misspelled the name of Corinthians’ goalscorer while stating obvious strategic admonitions (watch for counter attacks after corner kicks) added a layer of farce to a cringeworthy trip.

Crushing another Premier League team always has a was of making everything seem better, especially when there are so many positives beyond the ridiculous score. The win moved Chelsea back into their place, the team holding a game in hand on the collection of challengers who’d temporarily passed them. Frank Lampard was back. David Luiz looked good in midfield (and over dead balls, as the second goal showed). Fernando Torres actually scored a goal. All the ancillary positives meant the game could have ended 2-0 and given Chelsea one of their most positive afternoons of the season.

And it’s with that perspective that today’s true significance lies. As far-fetched as an 8-0 scoreline seems, it’s only one result. One team got three points. The other got none. Where the real implications lie are in the future.

(MORE: Other talking points on the 8-0 shellacking)

For Chelsea, there’s little doubt the Rafa Benítez mistake is starting to come good. It was a bad hire at the wrong time, but a man with his track record is bound to bring some positives to the job. After such an unambiguous sign that the fall’s worries are receding, Chelsea fans can discard their misgivings and begin to embrace the melancholy of the next six months.

No, Chelsea’s not title contenders. And yes, life with Rafa’s going to be a six months of waiting for a terrible roommate to finally move out. But now, there’s something positive to build on.

For Aston Villa, they’ve stumbled back down the stairs. For all the positives fans have seen in Paul Lambert’s first season, the team is still a relegation candidate. While they’re not favorites to go down, they’ve shown themselves capable of that special kind of horrible that may never assuage doubts. Not even the good runs can been seen as independent of the specter that another Stamford Bridge waits around the corner.

Villa’s now three points above the drop and have the worse goal difference in the Premier League. And their next game is against Tottenham, a team just as capable as Chelsea of exploiting the terrible defending on display at Stamford Bridge. And there’s no guarantee Brad Guzan will be as good on Wednesday.

That’s the power of 90 minutes. Chelsea and Aston Villa had spent weeks building their narratives, and within 90 minutes (much fewer, if you consider the disparity was clear long before the final whistle) their stories were destroyed. The surging swapped places with the morose.

You see that about as often as you see an 8-0 final.

Report: Man City could use Gabriel Jesus to get Rodri

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At the root of this report is a question to which we don’t know the answer: How highly does Pep Guardiola rate Gabriel Jesus?

A report from Spanish outlet AS says Guardiola could use his young striker to lure Atletico Madrid into a swap deal, landing Manchester City their stirring defensive midfielder Rodri.

[ MORE: Players to watch at U-20 World Cup ]

Rodri is a nearly year older than 22-year-old Jesus, and is more instrumental to his current club. One of Atletico Madrid’s top talents, his $78 million release clause is an obvious route for City.

If Guardiola doesn’t see Jesus as a huge part of the club’s future, however, the manager may be able to go nearly like-for-like money-wise.

Jesus scored nearly every other game for City in all competitions, nabbing 21 goals in 47 matches, and has 13 goals in 27 caps for Brazil. Those are good numbers, especially with still-electric Sergio Aguero turning 31 this summer.

At his relatively tender age, Jesus has appeared 100 times for Man City and his 45 goals are made more impressive by less than 5600 total minutes in those matches.

Giving up on him to complete his midfield is a tough one. We think it’s more likely Guardiola pays the release clause… unless the manager simply doesn’t rate the player.

Players to watch at the U-20 World Cup

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The U-20 World Cup begins this week in Poland, and there are a bevy of future stars to watch, as well as several who will make their names during the tournament.

We’ll focus on the former. While England’s failure to qualify somewhat limits the Premier League starlets on show, there are still plenty from the English top flight.


Tim Weah, United States (PSG) — After a loan at Celtic and time with the full USMNT, how much can he dominate back in his age group?

Alban Lafont, France (Fiorentina) — At age 20, he’s already the starter between the sticks for his Serie A mainstays.

Diego Lainez, Mexico (Real Betis) — Eighteen with 12 league appearances for Real Betis, Lainez is a massive part of El Tri‘s future and carries four caps to his name.

Ruben Vinagre, Portugal (Wolves) — Wolves were promoted, and Vinagre actually made eight more appearances (17) than he made in the Championship.

Ezequiel Barco, Argentina (Atlanta United) — His sophomore season for the Five Stripes has been better than his debut campaign, though that’s not saying a ton given the hype.

Evan N’Dicka, France (Eintracht Frankfurt) — Plenty of playing time in the Bundesliga at the age of 19 for this towering center back.

Paxton Pomykal, United States (FC Dallas) — Looking good in MLS. How much should that translate on this stage?

Andriy Lunin, Ukraine (Real Madrid) — Won’t be wearing the white of Madrid in meaningful action any time soon, but made four appearances on loan for Leganes as a 20-year-old.

Sebastian Soto, United States (Hannover 96) — Not the American-born Bundesliga starlet we expected had we created this list months ago, but Soto has made his Bundesliga debut, so there’s a lot to like while Josh Sargent works with the full USMNT.

Dan Zagadou, France (Borussia Dortmund) — The left- and center back has 25 first team appearances for BVB at 19.

Diogo Dalot, Portugal (Manchester United) — Red Devils supporters know about this fella, who was purchased under the watch of Jose Mourinho last summer.

Mickael Cuisance, France (Borussia Monchengladbach) — Took a step back after his blockbuster ‘Gladbach breakthrough in 2017-18, but will be a key piece for the favorites.

Moussa Sylla, France (Monaco) — The winger is already a factor for AS Monaco, even if they struggled this season.

Bonus: Erling Håland, Denmark (Red Bull Salzburg); Ronald Araujo, Uruguay (Barcelona); Tom Dele-Bashiru, Nigeira (Manchester City).

De Ligt reportedly chooses Barcelona; Klopp set at CB

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Liverpool, Manchester United, and pretty much everyone but Barcelona looks set to miss out on Matthijs de Ligt.

De Ligt, 19, has paired with Liverpool’s Virgil Van Dijk while in the Netherlands national team set-up, but reportedly is opting to join Ajax teammate Frenkie de Jong at Barcelona.

[ MORE: Brighton hires new boss ]

In the case of Liverpool, Sky Sports says that Reds boss Jurgen Klopp thinks he doesn’t need another center back.

Injuries hit Liverpool’s center backs this season outside of Van Dijk. Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren were rated highly and combined for just over 2500 minutes, while young Joe Gomez suffered a long-term injury midway through the season.

If all are healthy, Liverpool has decent depth. Yet even Gomez doesn’t have the upside to shake a stick at De Ligt if the 19-year-old was truly interested in coming to Anfield.

I mean, “Are you interested in this 19-year-old captain of a Champions League semifinalist? He’s interested in coming there” usually doesn’t yield a firm, “No.”

As for Barcelona, it will reinforce its back line a year after allowing 36 goals. That’s pretty decent, but the Blaugranas‘ third-highest total of the last decade.

Mkhitaryan assured of safety by Azerbaijan ambassador

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The Europa League Final in Azerbaijan has not been getting a lot of positive press due to fans unwillingness to travel for the event and Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s fears of stepping foot in the country.

That’s because Mkhitaryan is the captain of Armenia’s national team, and that nation’s long dispute with Azerbaijan.

[ MORE: Brighton hires new boss ]

Arsenal, of course, plays Chelsea in the May 29 final, and Mkhitaryan already missed an earlier UEL match against Azerbaijan powers Qarabag. He’s played plenty for the Gunners this season apart from a broken foot, and his absence would not be welcome news for this London Derby of a European Final.

Azerbaijan’s UK ambassador Tahir Taghizadeh has guaranteed safety for Mkhitaryan, and said he’d be happy to personally offer assurances to the Armenian. On the other hand, this doesn’t sound like the most positive messaging, via Sky Sports:

“My message to Mkhitaryan would be: you’re a footballer, you want to play football? Go to Baku you are safe there, if you want to play the issue then that’s a different story. What I can guarantee is that the Azerbaijan government will do everything what needs to be done and provide safety and security for every fan, player and staff member coming to this game.”

By using the phrase “play the issue,” it does launch the discussion firmly into political waters. One thing’s for sure: The issue may be debatable, but whether a player feels safe deserves to be his call and his call alone.