Premier League roundup: Chelsea’s Dr. Jekyll, Reading’s big comeback

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There’s no explaining this Chelsea team. The ups and downs are too extreme, too often. In the last month, they’ve lost to Corinthians, Queens Park Rangers, and Swansea (the last two at home) while beating Aston Villa and Southampton by a combined 13-1.

Today was more of the latter, though they got some help. Two own goals from Jon Walters staked the Blues to a 2-0 lead. Sprinkle in insurance  via Frank Lampard (from the spot) and Eden Hazard and Chelsea was back in the win column. Combined with Spurs’ draw at Loftus Road, the 4-0 result vaulted the Blues back into third place.

The scoreline was deceiving, though. Chelsea weren’t that good. Through most of the first half they looked the better team in talent but not in execution. The match was playing out as a game Stoke could steal via defensive mistake or a set piece.

But fortune went the other way, starting in first half stoppage time. Walters headed a cross into his own net to send Chelsea into halftime up 1-0. A second own goal in the 63rd minute and Lampard’s 194th goal for Chelsea (second on the club’s all-time list) two minutes later eliminated all doubt. Hazard’s tally was pure icing.

It’s the type of result that will obscure the fact Chelsea are still performing nowhere near their capabilities. People will see the lopsided score and make positive inferences, but it’s unclear this team is making progress. They may be within four points of second place Manchester City, but Chelsea are still more third/fourth place battlers than title contenders.

Which, incidentally, is right where most predicted them to land at the beginning of the season.

Mid-week, I rolled out the trite Dr. Jerkll and Mr. Hide analog (though I used it incorrectly). It’s cliché, but it’s an apt shorthand for Chelsea’s schizophrenia behavior, especially if you’re trying to avoid too many mental illness metaphors.

You really can’t predict which Chelsea team is going to show up. Today, the good one got three points at the Britannia.

source: Getty ImagesEight minutes, three goals, three points for Reading

When QPR drew this morning, we talked about the importance of going for three at home, especially if you’re fighting relegation. One point is nice, but at this juncture of the season, holding serve is not enough.

Through 80 minutes on Saturday, Reading weren’t even in frame for a draw. Nineteenth and 69th minute goals from Romelu Lukaku gave West Brom a 2-0 lead at the Madejski Stadium. The Baggies were on their way to snapping a two-match losing streak.

Then came the onslaught. Jimmy Kebe broke through in the 82nd minute, with mid-week hero Adam Le Fondre equalizing from the spot two minutes later. Not content with the lesser comeback, Reading got a winner from Pavel Progrebnyak in stoppage time to claim their third win in 22 games.

With neither Aston Villa nor Wigan winning, the three points loom particularly large. Not only did the Royals vault out of the basement, they’re now within three  of both the Villans and Latics. Plus, Brian McDermott’s team holds the goal difference advantage on each.

The comeback underscores the importance of full points. QPR walked off the pitch at Loftus Road feeling good about their 0-0 with Tottenham, but after the result at Reading, Rangers are worse off than they were before the day’s opening whistle.

Elsewhere in England

Aston Villa 0-1 Southampton – Ricky Lambert’s first half penalty conversion holds up to move Saints into 15th place. Villa drops into the relegation zone. Make a list of the potential reasons you should replace a coach mid-stream then ask yourself whether Villa should move on from Paul Lambert. Given their recent managerial history, is easier said than done, but it’s hard to see how, based on what he’s done at Villa, Lambert’s the man to keep them up.

Everton 0-0 Swansea – Swansea hasn’t lost since a 1-0 at White Hart Lane on Dec. 16. In that respect, this is an understandable result for Everton, though for a team chasing a Champions League spot, this looks like points dropped.

Fulham 1-1 Wigan Athletic – A 71st minute Franco Di Santo goal gets the Latics a valuable road point, temporarily pulling them out of the drop. Fulham started all of Dimitar Berbatov, Mladen Petric and Bryan Ruiz but were unable to snare a crucial second goal before Martin Jol started changing things just after the hour.

Norwich City 0-0 Newcastle – Everything I said about Paul Lambert, above? Apply them to Alan Pardew. Newcastle snaps a three-match losing streak (in league) but are only two points above the drop.

Sunderland 3-0 West Ham United – It’s the kind of result that makes you wonder if West Ham’s hat a wall. You can point to the absence of midfielder Mohamed Diamé, but it takes more than one man’s absence to explain conceding three times to Sunderland. Seb Larsson, Adam Johnson, and James McClean scored for a Black Cats side who’ve taken nine points from their last five games.

Barcelona denounces Spanish court decision on Catalan independence

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Barcelona released a statement criticizing a recent Spanish Supreme Court decision that saw 12 political activists jailed for their role in the 2017 push for Catalan independence.

The statement said that “prison is not the solution” and called the decision “condemnatory.” Instead, the club said that “the resolution of the conflict in Catalonia must come exclusively from political dialogue.”

The political activists were punished for pushing through an October 2017 referendum in Catalonia that resulted in over 90% of the population voting for independence. The referendum was declared illegal by Spain and seen within the country’s political hierarchy as an act of treason.

As one of the biggest social institutions of Catalonia, Barcelona’s statement on the matter carries significant weight both within the region and across Spain. Barcelona games often feature flags and banners calling for Catalan independence. Catalonia has also made a recent push for an independent FIFA-recognized squad, unsuccessful to this point. However, they played their first match inside a FIFA-sanctioned international window this March against Venezuela.

As a result of the court decision, the Catalan Football Federation suspended all its matches for Monday in solidarity with the accused. This includes only clubs and leagues that fall under the federation, which does not include Barcelona, La Liga, or the Spanish national team.

“FC Barcelona also expresses all its support and solidarity to the families of those who are deprived of their freedom,” the club said in the statement. Gerard Pique re-tweeted the social media version of the statement, adding the caption “Proud to be part of this Club.” Pique is a Catalan native and has appeared for the Catalonia national team 10 times.

Barcelona reportedly set to sign young Ansu Fati to first-team

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According to a report by Spanish publication Mundo Deportivo, Barcelona is readying a first-team contract for 16-year-old Ansu Fati after a collection of positive performances for the club.

The youngster was promoted to the senior side at the start of the season thanks to an injury crisis that swallowed up Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Ousmane Dembele.

He made his first appearance off the bench in the opening league game, coming on for 12 minutes against Real Betis. He then was handed a 45-minute substitute appearance against Osasuna where he registered his first goal in a 2-2 draw. That saw Fati handed his first start, and he scored again just two minutes into the eventual 5-2 win over Valencia.

With Messi struggling of late with injuries and Suarez also struck down and seeing his minutes carefully watched thanks to his advanced age, Fati’s emergence couldn’t have come at a better time for Barcelona. Therefore, the report states the new contract will feature an astronomical release clause of $220 million.

He only just signed a contract with the club back in July that saw him tied to Barcelona through 2022 and put him on a tiered pay scale that would reward him based on appearances for various youth and senior squads. His release clause in that contract was set at $110 million – already a record for a player of his age – but after his recent outburst the club may feel even that is not enough to ward off outside interest. The new contract will also reportedly boost his salary to a fixed $1 million for the season.

Convincing Fati to stick around long-term is of the utmost importance to Barcelona who has been forced to consider the future of the striker position at the club. Suarez’s age is the most pressing concern, but even the potential decline of 32-year-old Messi is a possibility for the near future. With those in mind, Fati’s contributions are critical and could signal a positive future for the Barcelona attack despite the necessary upcoming transitions.

Liverpool, Manchester United set for injury returns

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According to reports, both Manchester United and Liverpool are preparing to welcome back a number of important players from injury for their rivalry meeting at Old Trafford on Sunday.

Most notably, the Reds will reportedly have goalkeeper Alisson ready to take his place between the sticks, having missed nearly the entire season to this point with a calf injury. The Brazilian made it just 39 minutes into the Premier League opener against Norwich City before succumbing to injury, and Adrian has filled in since. While the Spaniard has played exceptionally well in his teammate’s stead, The Guardian reports that Alisson will take back his starting place no questions asked, having rigorously tested his injured leg with intensive training to make sure he is ready.

In addition to the Brazilian goalkeeper, Liverpool is also reportedly set to see Mohamed Salah prove fit to start despite his injury scare against Leicester City just before the international break.

For the hosts, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has received welcome news on a number of players prior to the matchup. Paul Pogba, who has missed three of the last four league matches and five of the last seven overall thanks to an ankle injury, is ready to go and will be available to start. The Mirror reports that Pogba spent much of the international break training in Dubai to aid in his recovery.

Also returning for Manchester United is Aaron Wan-Bissaka who has missed the last two Premier League matches with tonsillitis. It was reported that Wan-Bissaka was ready to return for the Newcastle match prior to the international break, but he missed out nonetheless and was absent from the England national team as well. Also reportedly returning is the oft-injured Luke Shaw who has not played since late August thanks to a hamstring problem.

Finally, Anthony Martial could be ready to return from his own hamstring injury. The report is that Martial would be in contention for a place in the Manchester United18-man squad, suggesting that he may need a match or two to regain full fitness for a starting spot but would be an option off the bench if needed.

Liverpool and Manchester United meet on Sunday for the 203rd time overall and 173rd time in the top flight, kicking off at 11:30 a.m. ET from Old Trafford. The matchup is significant for both sides as Liverpool looks to maintain its perfect record and eight point lead atop the Premier League table, while Manchester United is hoping for a boost from its vastly mediocre record to this point in the season, having recorded just two wins through the first eight matches.

Petr Cech earns win with 2 penalty saves in hockey debut

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Former Chelsea and Arsenal goalkeeper joined English fourth-division hockey team Guildford Phoenix four days ago and made his debut on Sunday.

He did not disappoint.

The 37-year-old saved two penalties in the shootout, earning Man of the Match honors.

Cech is reportedly a fan of the Guilford Flames, the first-division side who use the Phoenix as their developmental side. He was signed to be the team’s third-choice goalkeeper, just a chance for him to get in on the action before his body gives way for good, but he was given a chance to play right away. He wore number 39, a nod to famous Czech goaltender Dominik Hasek. His custom helmet was adorned with Arsenal and Chelsea colors. Regulation finished level at 2-2 before Cech’s shootout heroics.

“I wanted to win, that was the main thing, and I’m glad we did,” Cech said after the match. “I was surprised that I wasn’t more nervous. I didn’t know what to expect so it was nice how quickly my body switched into matchday mode.”