What’s left in England’s race to finish in the top four?

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Technically, Chelsea didn’t sew up a top four finish with today’s win at Villa Park. But if it wasn’t for the most outlying scenarios demanding attention for the sake of accuracy, the possibilities of Chelsea finishing fifth wouldn’t even deserve our attention. Up six points on fifth with a huge goal difference edge, Rafa Benítez would give his first team an early vacation and the Blues would still be playing in Champions League next fall.

But for the sake of discussion (and to see what’s left to decide fourth place), let’s take a look at what remains for England’s third-through-fifth place teams – the three clubs competing for the league’s two final UEFA Champions League.

Current Standings

  • 3. Chelsea – 37 games played, 72 points, +35 goal difference.
  • 4. Arsenal – 36 games played, 67 points, +31 goal difference.
  • 5. Tottenham Hotspur – 36 games played, 66 points, +18 goal difference.

(Manchester United and Manchester City have already secured Champions League spots.)

What’s Left

Chelsea

It almost doesn’t matter. There’s no way Tottenham Hotspur are outscoring their opponents by the 17 goals they’d need to have a chance to take advantage of a Chelsea slip. And if they do, they’ll surely start with a barrage tomorrow at Stoke City, one which will give the Blues a chance to pause and reconsider. ‘Maybe we should take our finale against Everton seriously?’

It’s not going to happen. No way is it even on André Villas-Boas’s radar. The last Champions League spot is all about Spurs and Arsenal.

That will give Chelsea a chance to concentrate on silverware. Wednesday in Amsterdam, the Blues meet Benfica in the Europa League final, a chance to a fourth different European trophy to their selves. It ma not be the honor Blues fans would have wanted (one that required Champions League failure to qualify for it), but years from now, supporters may look back fondly if the honor helps round out the club’s European resume.

Should they do that, expect a second choice team to take the pitch against Everton. The regulars and veterans? They’ll be given a chance to enjoy their title. They may be dealing with some lingering dehydration come kickoff in West London.

Arsenal

The Gunners need win in their last two games to see their way back into Champions League – a competition they’ve been in each of the last 14 years. The only thing standing between them and a 15th straight appearance are a wins against Wigan and Newcastle (or a slip by Spurs).

It’s a fortunate run-in. True, both the Latics and Magpie will be fueled by relegation concerns, but ultimately, you’d rather play bad teams than good. And right now, neither Wigan nor Newcastle are good.

Arsenal host Wigan on Tuesday, three days after the Latics try for their first major trophy in the FA Cup final. Expect Roberto Martínez to start a full team on short rest. Given Wigan’s style and Arsenal’s talents, the Gunners should be able to pass the Latics into submission. Even if things go awry, Arsène Wenger’s men should be able to wait out a late win.

Their final game is at St. James Park, visiting a Newcastle team that’s been one of the league’s worst since spring. The Magpies have only won once since March 10, a 1-0 home win over equally inept Fulham. Amid speculation of a divided locker room and galling performances like the recent 6-0 home loss to Liverpool, Newcastle carry many of the pox of a relegation disaster. Fortunately for them, Wigan may have run out of time.

Tottenham Hotspur

Like Arsenal’s, Spurs’ run-in is relatively easy – a visit to Stoke followed by a finale against Sunderland at White Hart Lane. Their destiny may be out of their control, but with two fixtures against struggling sides, Tottenham can force Arsenal to get full points to take fourth place.

If Arsenal doesn’t get two wins, Spurs can snag a top four spot with two wins. And if the Gunners win out? Spurs are done.

But let’s stop and consider the Spurs season if they do claim two wins. That would put them on 72 points one season after 69 secured a fourth place finish. Last season, 72 points would have claimed third place and pushed Arsenal into Champions League. This year, after losing Luka Modric in August, André Villa-Boas could better Harry Redknapp’s mark.

There’s still a chance 72 will be enough to get Spurs into Champions League. Though Arsenal has been in Champions League every year since 2001, it’s been a long time since they’ve been pushed for a spot, and since the Invincibles started leaving North London, Arsenal hasn’t been above an unexpected stumble.

The odds aren’t short, but for Spurs,  it’s not mission impossible. Unfortunately, their Champions League future remains in their rivals’ hands.

Spat in Spanish soccer over playing during daytime heat

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Spanish soccer has another spat on its hands.

The national soccer federation took issue with the Spanish league over its management strategy for the second time this week when it criticized the scheduling of games during what it considered the excessive heat of daytime.

The federation run by Luis Rubiales said it would try to take control of match scheduling if La Liga continues to hold matches in daytime heat.

The federation issued a statement on Sunday to express its “displeasure that matches are still being played each weekend under temperatures that are over 30 degrees (Celsius, 86 Fahrenheit) with the problems that cause athletes and fans.”

Sevilla vs. Levante started at 12:00 local time on Sunday, with Villarreal hosting Valencia at 16:15. Both matches featured water breaks in each half due to the high temperatures.

Villarreal coach Javier Calleja complained about the heat, and the time of the match.

“We have to find a better time (to play),” Calleja said after the 0-0 draw. “It was very hot today and it was not the best time. Today we all suffered, above all the players.”

The league’s heat protocol allows it to push back the time of matches if temperatures are expected to reach 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit).

Sunday’s match between Athletic Bilbao at Real Betis played in the southern city of Sevilla was originally scheduled to start at 18:30, but the league pushed it back to 20:00 earlier this week when forecasts called for temperatures to approach 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).

Prior to the federation statement, Rubiales wrote on Twitter “If La Liga maintains these crazy playing times, we will recover the power” to schedule matches. His tweet included a photo of woman who appeared to be receiving medical attention at a stadium, apparently for a health problem related to the heat.

League president Javier Tebas responded to Rubiales on Twitter by saying “my friend Luis Rubiales”. “you cannot recover what is not yours.”

The dispute over times is the second run-in between the league and federation this week.

On Friday, the federation responded to the league’s request to play a regular-season match in the United States with a letter listing several problems it finds in the plan.

MADRID EYES KEY WEEK

Expect Gareth Bale to be back in the frontline of Real Madrid’s attack this week when it faces high-profile matches at Sevilla and a capital derby against Atletico Madrid.

Madrid coach Julen Lopetegui, who has the difficult task of following in the footsteps of Zinedine Zidane, took a chance on Saturday when he left Bale and other first-choice players out of his lineup for the visit of Espanyol.

The decision seemed reasonable enough considering that Espanyol hasn’t won at the Santiago Bernabeu since the 1995-96 season, and that his regular starters had played on Wednesday in a 3-0 win over Roma in the Champions League. So Lopetegui took the calculated risk that now was the time to give Bale, Marcelo and Toni Kroos a break.

But instead of trouncing Espanyol with a squad led by Francisco “Isco” Alarcon, Madrid needed a favorable video review to see a first-half strike by Marco Asensio appear on the scoreboard, and Borja Iglesias’ shot to be rejected by the crossbar to eke out a 1-0 victory and avoid consecutive slips after drawing at Athletic Bilbao.

“Players who don’t play as often played well today, we had to give them minutes and they responded,” Lopetegui. “We had circled this match in red. Games that come after a match in the Champions League are always complicated.”

In and out of favor with Zidane, Bale has been the driving force for Madrid going back to the end of the last season, when he scored five goals in the final four appearances in La Liga. That scoring run preceded his outstanding performance in the Champions League final, when he scored twice as a second-half substitute to help beat Liverpool 3-1.

So far this season, the Wales winger has four goals in six appearances, including a goal in a 3-0 win over Roma to start Madrid’s European title defense.

Madrid visits Sevilla on Wednesday before hosting Atletico on Saturday. Three days later, Madrid then has a long trip to Moscow to play CSKA in the Champions League.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Mourinho’s mixed messages over Man United progression

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Jose Mourinho believes his Manchester United side will progress this season. Even if the table or points tally doesn’t show it.

Work that one out.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Speaking ahead of United’s 1-1 draw at home to Wolves on Saturday — Paul Pogba has already had his say as he urged United to ‘attack, attack, attack’ at home — Mourinho said he is pleased with the overall development of his side.

“I am not saying we are going to have more points than last season because last season we collect a very acceptable level,” Mourinho said. “I think we are going to be a better team. We are going to play better than we did but I think it’s going to be a very difficult season. Not just for us, also for the others because the others they can say exactly the same as I am saying and they can say: ‘Oh, Manchester United, good team, good squad, City good squad, good team.’”

“I am optimistic, but a difficult season, yes,” Mourinho added. “I don’t change that because we won two matches in the Premier League. You see the level of the teams: you see [the] Liverpool squad, City squad, Chelsea squad, Tottenham squad, Arsenal improving. It’s going to be difficult.”

As Mourinho mentioned, they’ve won two of their last three but just three of their opening six PL games this season and they’re already eight points off league leaders Liverpool in the table.

Surely he can’t be too happy with the development of his team? Mourinho questioned the attitude of his players after the draw with Wolves, which isn’t a sign of him believing they’re moving in the right direction.

The Portuguese coach is sending out mixed messages.

United’s dropped points against Tottenham, Brighton and Wolves were deserved, although the game against Spurs was a strange one as they played well and should have led but they were then punished in the second half. Wolves could’ve easily nicked a win at United on Saturday and United’s defensive deficiencies are the biggest problem for Mourinho to sort out as he chops and changes defensive players.

Do they need to attack more? Well, that is always the objective for any team and United are no different, especially at home, but Mourinho doesn’t seem to know his best attacking lineup aside from Romelu Lukaku. There’s no doubt Alexis Sanchez is in a severe slump, while Marcus Rashford is being played out of position on the wing and the likes of Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial are in and out of the team. To become a better attacking unit you need to have a settled system and personnel who can create and combine effectively. United do not have that. At all. And they haven’t since Mourinho arrived in 2016.

Over the past three seasons, United have scored 131 goals, the fewest amount of the so-called ‘big six’ in the Premier League.

They’ve scored nine goals in their opening six games of this season and they’ve conceded nine. That points to fine-tuning needed in both defense and attack if they’re not only going to finish in the top four but also drag themselves into the title race.

At this point Mourinho needs his players to put points on the board and more trophies in the cabinet at Old Trafford because his team aren’t showing serious signs of progression and aren’t enjoyable to watch on a weekly basis a la Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham and even Arsenal.

Sarri believes Chelsea still far from competing with Liverpool

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Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri checked the Blues fixture list, saw Liverpool twice in one week, and groaned. Probably.

After Chelsea drew 0-0 with London rivals West Ham on Sunday, Sarri looked ahead and told reporters that Liverpool has the continuity he craves.

“They are a step forward of us at this moment,” said Sarri when asked about Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool. “We have to play against a very, very good team who have worked with the same coach for three years. We have started to work together 40 days ago, less 10 days for the international break, so for us it is a bit early. We have to work and then, maybe, in one year we will be at the same level as Liverpool.”

Klopp was hired as Liverpool manager on October 8, 2015 and has slowly built the Reds squad into not just a Premier League title contender, but a formidable Champions League power as well, reaching the tournament final last campaign. Sarri believes the Liverpool attack is one of the most dangerous they’ll face, and while it might be entertaining for fans, it will stress him out.

“It will be a really difficult match,” Sarri said. “Maybe spectacular but for us, difficult. I don’t think there is an easy game against Salah, Firmino and Mane.”

Chelsea first faces Liverpool in the Carabao Cup on Wednesday at Anfield, and Sarri says he could make “five or eleven changes” with one less day to rest. Then, the clubs meet in the Premier League on Saturday at Stamford Bridge at 12:30 p.m. ET.

LA Galaxy handles Seattle Sounders 3-0 to close playoff gap

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There is plenty more work to be done for the LA Galaxy to complete the unlikely push for a playoff spot, but they passed a major hurdle with a 3-0 victory over the Seattle Sounders on Sunday night at the StubHub Center.

Seattle suffered a 60-minute defensive nightmare, and was never able to recover. It all started just nine minutes in when Brad Smith needlessly barged into the back of Ola Kamara who was chasing down a ball on the right side of the box, and the referee pointed to the spot. Zlatan Ibrahimovic sent Stefan Frei the wrong way with the ensuing penalty, and the Galaxy took the early lead.

Los Angeles found a second just before halftime as Ibrahimovic looked off the defense and then unlocked the back line with a burst forward on the left flank, feeding Romain Alessandrini through who burst towards the end line and crossed to Kamara for an easy tap-in just five minutes before the break.

Past halftime, the home side continued to dominate. Seattle held 55% possession, but failed to record a single shot on target until the 66th minute, finishing with just one among the 14 total attempts on net. LA would cash in on Seattle’s wastefulness for a 3-0 lead on a goal by Emmanuel Boateng in the 52nd minute and put the game out of sight.

The win lifts the Galaxy above the Vancouver Whitecaps and into 7th place in the Western Conference, with Vancouver’s loss to FC Dallas. They now sit just three points back of Seattle in the final playoff spot. The Sounders saw a nine-game winning streak and 12-game unbeaten streak snapped last time out against Philadelphia, and now the sudden slide could have devastating consequences should it continue.