Mr. Hyde shows up as Chelsea falls at Newcastle

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Newcastle may be much improved after spending their winter window hitting “Buy It Now” on French soccer Ebay, but it’s difficult to look beyond Chelsea when trying to explain today’s result. The Blues allowed themselves to go behind on a Jonas Gutierrez header before taking a 2-1 lead through Frank Lampard and Juan Mata just past the hour mark. Yet thanks to two goals from new midfielder Moussa Sissoko, Chelsea leaves St. James Park 3-2 losers and destined to be pulled back into a race for third.

The Blues came into this weekend action with a four-point lead on Spurs for fourth, but returning to London without a point, they’re dangerously close to being pulled into a second successive fight for Champions League. With a draw from Everton (against Aston Villa) and a win by Arsenal (over Stoke City), Chelsea’s now only four-points away from sixth.

Rafa Benitez has been terrible — we know this — but Chelsea’s a team that has always had a strong player leadership culture, one that was able to carry the likes of Avram Grant to a Champions League final. Didier Drogba is gone, but Frank Lampard, John Terry, and Petr Cech are not only still there, they were on the field when Chelsea gave up today’s lead. No matter what you think of Benitez, it’s hard to see how he got in the way of this win, particularly when a bench thinned by injury, suspension, and Cup of Nations left him with no meaningful way to tinker.

Beyond Benítez or the wane of Chelsea leadership, today’s issue is one pundits and followers have been harping on all season. As Moussa Sissoko scored a late double in his second Premier League match, you saw the type of drive, strength, and resolve that would bolster an underperforming Chelsea midfield. How do Spurs end up with a player like Sissoko when taking a flyer on him (or any other player like him) would cost Chelsea a fraction of their transfer budget?

Late in this match, as he became the most important player on the field, you couldn’t help but ask how he was allowed to do that? How can this player that had struggled of late for Toulouse be dropped into the league and, a week later, win matches against the European champion?

MORE: United’s flawed, fabulous season continues at Fulham

Obviously there are a lot of problems at Chelsea right now, but if that question even needs to be asked, those problems might run deeper than we had previously thought. Through most of this season Chelsea’s been a troubled if stably third place side, but while giving up today’s lead they showed the type of perpetual vulnerability that defined last year’s slide. Now it’s worth asking whether the Blues are much better than the team that finished sixth last season.

Of course, there is a big difference. Last year’s slide was make possible but Roberto Di Matteo putting all of the team’s eggs into the Champions League basket. What’s this year’s excuse?

There’s also the possibility Newcastle’s come together. They have Sissoko, Yoann Gouffran and Mathieu Debuchy. Yoann Cabaye is healthy, as is Steven Taylor at the back. This team is better than a 15th place side, even if they’ve rarely looked it.

MORE, EPL Roundup: Fellaini England’s best?

But Chelsea was up 2-1. They are the more talented side. They have the players to close out that game. Chelsea should have taken full points.

For the last two months we’ve likened Chelsea to Dr. Jeykll and Mr. Hyde, but with the team falling back into a race for their Champions League lives, the pressure mounts to find a cure to their constant bipolar transformations. Why is Mr. Hyde showing up more often than Dr. Jeykll?

Report: Newcastle in takeover talks with UAE billionaire

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Reports out of Northeast England say Newcastle United supporters who want owner Mike Ashley out at all costs have new hope.

United Arab Emirates billionaire Sheikh Khaled bin Zayed Al Nehayan is said to be in talks with Ashley about a takeover of the St. James’ Park-based club, though there’s a lot of work to do for a deal to be complete.

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One report goes as far as to say Ashley has agreed to accept $444 million for the Premier League club.

Sheikh Khaled, 61, was educated at American colleges Boston University and Michigan State. He’s the cousin of Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and was turned down with a $2.5 billion bid for Liverpool last season.

From The Chronicle:

NUFC have confirmed some talks with Sheikh Khaled. But say there is still “some way” to go on a deal. Newcastle United refusing to make any further comment at this time.

Takeover talks are nothing new at Newcastle, and there does seem to be some heat to these reports, but Ashley and his crew have spun these stories of interest in the past. And with Magpies supporters waiting for news on Rafa Benitez‘s new deal, some will be way of a smoke screen for an inability to reach an agreement with the celebrated Newcastle manager.

Wondolowski scores 149th, 150th goals; Earthquakes win

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TORONTO (AP) Chris Wondolowski scored his 149th and 150th MLS goals in the San Jose Earthquakes’ 2-1 victory over Toronto FC on Sunday night.

The MLS career goals leader scored both from close range.

[ MORE: Kante to miss Europa League final ]

Wondolowski got a yard’s separation from Drew Moor and deftly redirected in Cristian Espinoza’s cross in the 37th minute to tie it at 1. The go-ahead goal in the 81st minute was a virtual replay, with Espinoza finding Wondolowski in space.

The San Jose striker has six goals in two games. He scored all four goals in a 4-1 victory over Chicago last weekend to surpass Landon Donovan’s league record of 145 goals and up his career total to 148.

Richie Laryea opened the scoring for Toronto (5-6-2) in the 28th minute

San Jose (5-6-2) won for the first time in six road games this season.

Chairman Mubarak: Other clubs are ‘jealous’ of Man City’s success

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Manchester City chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak believes that other clubs — namely those who have fallen miles back of the back-to-back Premier League champions — are “jealous” of the club’s success.

[ MORE: Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante to miss Europa League final with new injury ]

The root of the perceived jealousy is, of course, Man City’s seemingly unlimited spending power which dwarves that of just about — if not — every other club in the PL. There’s a growing sense around the league — and around the world — that clubs like City, just to name one, are doing the game a disservice by distorting the transfer market and building an infallible super-team with the aid of unprecedented financial resources.

Mubarak believes that these feelings also stem from other clubs’ failed dealings in the transfer market: spending comparable — if not more — money on players who don’t justify that price tag the same way some of City’s big-money buys have done — quotes from the BBC:

“With success, there is a certain level of jealousy, envy, whatever you call it. That’s part of the game.

“It’s not easy for our competition, we know that. But the reality is, we didn’t buy the most expensive player in the Premier League [Paul Pogba], we didn’t buy the most expensive goalkeeper [Kepa Arrizabalaga], we didn’t buy the most expensive midfielder, we didn’t buy the most expensive striker [Romelu Lukaku].

“People make decisions, they’ve got to live by them. This is a well-run club.”

City’s financial dealings have regularly been in the headlines of late, as they are believed to have circumvented FFP rules by lying about sponsorship deals so as to balance a larger expenditure on transfer fees and player wages with revenue generated by the club.

Valverde under pressure after dismal end to Barcelona’s season

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MADRID (AP) A couple of weeks ago, few questioned Ernesto Valverde as Barcelona coach.

The team had just won a second straight Spanish league title under his command and was close to making it to the Champions League final after beating Liverpool 3-0 in the first leg of the semifinals.

The team was also through to the Copa del Rey final, where it would try to win an unprecedented fifth straight title in the competition.

Valverde seemed to be comfortably in control as the club moved closer to winning the treble.

Things quickly took a turn for the worse, though, and Valverde woke up on Sunday under added pressure and facing increased criticism.

Barcelona lost 2-1 to Valencia in the Copa del Rey final on Saturday, a result that followed the disastrous elimination against Liverpool in the Champions League and added to the team’s woeful end to what had been a great season.

“A month ago we were celebrating the league title. Fifteen days ago we were thinking we had a chance at a treble,” Valverde said. “And we came up short in the decisive moments in both the Champions League and the Copa del Rey.”

The disappointing ending brought out a wave of criticism of Valverde, who last year also finished the season under a cloud after another humiliating Champions League elimination – that time it squandered a big first-leg lead against Roma in the tournament’s quarterfinals.

The criticism seems more pronounced this time, with some fans and local media calling for a change at the helm.

It didn’t take long after Barcelona’s loss to Valencia in Seville for club President Josep Bartomeu to come out and defend the coach.

“Ernesto has a contract and he remains the team’s coach,” Bartomeu said. “This loss was not the coach’s fault. The team created a lot of scoring chances but the ball didn’t go in, and what counts is how many times you score.”

Bartomeu had already defended Valverde after the demoralizing 4-0 loss to Liverpool in the Champions League, saying the club was not considering a change in command for next season.

Valverde said he was not worried and felt supported by the club despite the disappointing ending.

“It’s a bad feeling, we won’t deny it, but we have to stay strong,” he said. “What we want as coaches is to have a chance to come back. It’s tough to lose, it means something went wrong. We have to take the responsibility for it.”

Even if Valverde stays as expected, it doesn’t mean there won’t be changes for Barcelona.

Several players played below expectations this season, especially former Liverpool star Philippe Coutinho, who was regularly jeered by fans and whose place with the club remains uncertain.

Bartomeu will likely have to go shopping in the offseason to try to improve the supporting cast for Lionel Messi, who had a fantastic year but wasn’t able to save the season by himself. When Messi looked ordinary, no one was able to take over his role as protagonist, and it proved costly in the decisive moments.

Young midfielder Frenkie de Jong is joining from Ajax and he should significantly boost the midfield, but Barcelona will definitely need to add to its attack, as Luis Suarez was the only true striker who performed consistently well. He couldn’t play in the Copa final after undergoing knee surgery and his absence was felt as the team struggled to capitalize on its scoring chances.

Veteran Gerard Pique is set to return for another season in defense, but there are still doubts about the fitness of Samuel Umtiti, who missed several matches this season because of injuries.

“We’ve been thinking about next season for a while, but it’s not the time to discuss the future,” Bartomeu said. “We ended with the Spanish league title, it was important. We couldn’t win the Copa, but we’ll just move on.”