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Why N’Golo Kante will be key in new-look Chelsea’s quest for success

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N'Golo Kante completed his $40 million move to Chelsea over the weekend and the Blues’ new manager Antonio Conte couldn’t be happier.

The Italian manager has made the French international midfield his second signing since arriving at Stamford Bridge — towering Belgian striker Michy Batshuayi was his first — and Kante will become an integral part of Conte’s new-look Chelsea from the get-go.

[ MORE: UEFA releases top player list ]  

At 25 years old Kante is in his prime and is ready to kick on to the next level after leading Leicester to an incredible Premier League title win last season.

Yes, Jamie Vardy scored the goals and Riyad Mahrez often created them but who was the man who won the ball back and then used it so efficiently so the Foxes could attack in the first place?

Ask any Leicester fan, or anybody who watched them closely, and they’ll tell you Kante was the heartbeat of Leicester last season.

[ MORE: Zlatan – “I’ll be God in Manchester” ]  

Conte knows it too and is ready to build his team around the late-blooming defensive midfielder who was playing in the French lower tiers until two seasons ago.

Speaking after Chelsea’s opening preseason friendly on Saturday, a 2-0 loss to Rapid Vienna, the former Italian national team manager spoke glowingly about Kante’s arrival at Stamford Bridge.

“I want to say Kante was a target and for this reason I’m very happy the club bought the player. He’s a good player. He has good technique, fantastic stamina and I like this type of player. If you want to win a team needs this type of player – Kante, Matic and Mikel – that work hard for the team,” Conte said. “We identified him, me and the club together, and I think Kante can give a lot to Chelsea, to enforce a zone which is very important if we want to play with two central midfielders. He showed last season he’s able to play with another midfielder.

“I think with this player we’ve reinforced the squad. All together we are working to improve the squad. We know we have to but we prefer to wait and go for our targets, rather than go with emotion and take the players who don’t adapt to our idea of football.”

Technical director Michael Emenalo has also talked about how Kante is a perfect fit for Conte’s philosophies and the Blues now seem to have the balance in their midfield correct with Kante slotting perfectly into their side.

Kante can play alongside a more destructive player and be the driving force, a la Danny Drinwkater, but is also a player who will run forwards and launch counters without being too creative or scoring goals or adding assists. He just does all of the simple things ridiculously well.

Chelsea have so many attacking talents who can do the rest ridiculously well. If Kante supplied a seemingly never-ending stream of balls to Vardy and Mahrez last season, think of what kind of service he can give Eden Hazard, Willian, Diego Costa and Batshuayi and what kind of damage they can do.

Just like Claude Makelele did in the past for Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and others to flourish, Kante will do the dirty work in midfield to intercept, tackle and set Chelsea on their way. True, he is more dynamic than Makelele was but the duo both play the same vitally important role, especially with so many mercurial talents at Conte’s disposal in his debut season managing in England.

Kante straightaway adds much-needed balance to this Chelsea midfield.

The only issue here is, where does Cesc Fabregas fit in? It seems like his days as a true two-way midfield may be over under Conte, a manager who prefers players in the engine room who can win the ball back quickly and shield the defensive unit. It is fitting he mentioned Kante, John Obi Mikel and Nemanja Matic in his comments as he clearly sees two of those three playing alongside each other at the start of the season. Fabregas will be pushed higher up the pitch and it is clear the Blues’ midfield now belongs to Kante.

Chelsea will no longer be a talented team of individuals who roll over and surrender just as they did far too easily for much of last season. Conte, and most importantly Kante, will add steel, drive and power to their core.

The Blues have picked up arguably the most influential central midfielder in Europe over the past 12 months and he will be key to their future success as a new era arrives in west London.

Chicharito seizes chance to be center of the Galaxy

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Carson, Calif. — Javier Hernandez has been to the top of the soccer world. He spent the last 10 years in Europe’s top leagues, winning trophies and representing some of the biggest clubs.

Yet from Manchester United to Sevilla, the Mexican striker better known as Chicharito often struggled to get consistent playing time.

Whether his path was blocked by Wayne Rooney‘s brilliance or a manager’s lack of confidence in him, Hernandez rarely got to show his full talent. When he wasn’t fighting injuries, he often served as a key backup instead of a centerpiece.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

That’s the main reason the 31-year-old Hernandez agreed to return to North America with the LA Galaxy, who introduced their latest superstar acquisition Thursday.

Chicharito is the center of the Galaxy now, and he is thrilled.

“I just want to play,” Hernandez said in his distinctively rapid bilingual delivery. “This league and this team, it’s giving me that opportunity (to show) that I’m one of the best players around the world. That’s why they want me to be here, to try to improve this league and this team. … It’s a win-win-win-win. I know I’ll be on the pitch most of the time if I keep working hard for the club. I’m going to be doing what I loved since I was in the belly of my mother.”

With Chicharito playing in only nine games so far this season for Sevilla, the timing was finally perfect for this long-rumored combination of player and club.

While the Galaxy made major improvements and reached the playoffs last season behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s franchise-record 30 goals, they desperately needed another topflight striker at the center of coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s attack when Ibrahimovic chose to return to Europe. Unlike most Major League Soccer clubs, the Galaxy have the money to go get elite talents, even in the January transfer window.

Hernandez is well aware of the five-time MLS champions’ history of landing world-class players, reeling off his own list of favorites: “Robbie Keane. Steven Gerrard. Giovani Dos Santos. Jonathan Dos Santos. Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Landon Donovan. David Beckham, that’s the most iconic one, obviously. And then my name is over those. I’m just so blessed and so humble that I can be a part of all this.”

The speedy, shifty Chicharito likely fits Barros Schlelotto’s style even better than the hulking Zlatan, and the Argentine coach worked aggressively behind the scenes to land Hernandez.

While Chicharito’s European career got off to a strong start at Manchester United under the guidance of Sir Alex Ferguson, he repeatedly struggled elsewhere when managers clearly didn’t believe in his abilities.

[ MORE: Premier League Club Power Rankings ]

“More than anybody, Guillermo was involved in making it happen,” said Galaxy general manager Dennis Te Kloese, who has known Chicharito since the player’s childhood. “In the end, it had to do with Javier’s interest in being a part of this organization because he’s going to be in a team and with a coach who has a lot of trust in him.”

That clearly wasn’t always the case in Hernandez’s European career. After four years in Manchester, Chicharito spent one season at Real Madrid and two more at Bayer Leverkusen, followed by two seasons back in the Premiership at West Ham. He scored goals at every stop, but never landed a permanent, consistent role matching his importance to the Mexican national team.

“I think what makes a lot of the world-class players even better is (how) they get used to their circumstances,” Chicharito said. “That’s something that I think I can bring. I want to show them that I’ve never been a selfish player – even though strikers are going to be in front of everyone, and I’m probably going to take the shot. I’m completely motivated.”

The top goal-scorer in the history of the Mexican national team already knows Los Angeles from many trips representing El Tri, which is invariably treated as the home team at the Rose Bowl by California’s massive Mexican-American population. Chicharito was greeted at the airport by hundreds of noisy fans when he arrived with his young family Wednesday night.

“I’ve been playing in this country since I was 16 years old,” Chicharito said. “I’ve won a lot of games here, and I’ve been treated with a lot of value and respect. I want that, and it’s coming from the best club in the USA. They came to get me, and that speaks of what they think of me.”

While the MLS is an undeniable step back in overall exposure and competition, Hernandez knows he will deal with even more scrutiny on his home continent from the fans and Spanish-language media based in Los Angeles.

That extra scrutiny has already started: When Chicharito’s YouTube reality show released an episode Wednesday in which Hernandez told his father that moving to the Galaxy was “like the beginning of my retirement,” fans and critics immediately seized on the term often used to denigrate MLS.

Chicharito explained himself with a smile before he held aloft his Galaxy jersey and formally began his next chapter.

“In my country, we love and we are, like, obsessed with drama and excess,” Hernandez said, clarifying that he only meant he had finished the European portion of his career.

“They don’t really listen to what I said at the beginning of the retirement (comment). This retirement could last 10 years. That word is strong for them when I mention (retirement), but it’s just the beginning of that. Hopefully this beginning is going to last so long.”

Simeone has no plans to leave Atletico Madrid despite setbacks

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It might seem insane, the idea that anyone other than Diego Simeone would manage Atletico Madrid any time soon.

And if the 49-year-old Argentine manager comes available, the market for his services is going to be active.

Simeone was answering questions about his future following Atleti’s stunning 2-1 loss to third-tier Cultural Leonessa in the Copa del Rey’s Round of 32 on Thursday.

“I have the desire to work like every day since I arrived,” Simeone said, via Marca. “The penalties or the extra time in the Champions League didn’t change me, nor will going out in this round. I have an important squad and results will come soon.”

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Simeone has led Atleti to a La Liga crown, two Europa League titles, and a pair of Champions League finals.

He’s a three-time La Liga coach of the year, and Atleti has finished Top Three in all of his seasons at the club except 2011/12. He was hired in December of that year and won Europa.

The third-place run is at risk this season, and not because Simeone hasn’t been able to marshal his back line (Come on, obviously). The club has struggled to find goals without Antoine Griezmann, though massive signing Joao Felix has shown signs. After Alvaro Morata’s 10 goals, only Angel Correa (5) and Felix (4) have more than two.

Hence all the Edinson Cavani talk. And the Alexandre Lacazette talk.

If Simeone were to be looking for a job, it would be interesting to see how many jobs would almost instantly become available.

PL Club Power Rankings: Week 24

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What are we supposed to do when the form table says there are about four teams playing well across the Premier League, and one conceded two stoppage-time goals to draw their last match?

It’s nutty, dear reader.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Liverpool is a team of destiny and Man City unbeaten in seven across all competitions. After that, there’s a lot of long exhalations and ponderous glances at the form table.

Things might get nutty in our first power rankings since Week 22.

Green: New season-high ranking
Red: New season-low

[ MORE: PL Club Power Rankings archive ]

20. Norwich City — The Canaries have this awful penchant for getting no points when they should get one, and one when they should get three. The former happened against Spurs, and now they simply have to sweep Newcastle by winning at St. James’ Park in two weeks.
Last week: 20
Season high: 10
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 2-1 at Spurs
Up next: 10 a.m. Feb. 1 at Newcastle United

19. West Ham United — All David Moyes does is win, he says, though he hasn’t done it since pounding moribund Bournemouth. No Felipe Anderson for a month is brutal.
Last week: 16
Season high: 5
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 4-1 at Leicester City
Up next: 2:45 p.m. ET Wednesday v. Liverpool; 10 a.m. ET Feb. 1 v. Brighton
18. Brighton and Hove Albion — Losing to Bournemouth after drawing at home to Villa leaves the Seagulls just two points above the drop zone.
Last week: 12
Season high: 6
Season low: 18
Last match: Lost 3-1 at Bournemouth
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Feb. 1 at West Ham

17. Bournemouth — The Cherries faithful needed that. Now it needs health… and Jacob Bruun Larsen?
Last week: 18
Season high: 6
Season low: 18
Last match: Won 3-1 v. Brighton
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Feb. 1 v. Aston Villa
16. Burnley — They’re doing it again. They’re unkillable.
Last week: 17
Season high: 5
Season low: 17
Last match: Won 2-0 at Manchester United
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Feb. 2 v. Arsenal
15. Watford — Going out of the FA Cup is probably a good thing.
Last week: 13
Season high: 13
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 2-1 at Aston Villa
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday v. Everton
14. Aston Villa — A big win meets a big swing: Will Mbwana Samatta adjust seamlessly to the Premier League and give Jack Grealish some aid in attack?
Last week: 19
Season high: 6
Season low: 19
Last match: Won 2-1 v. Watford
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Feb. 1 at Bournemouth
13. Crystal Palace — Winless in five, though four were draws. Need health in a bad way after getting controlled by Saints at Selhurst Park.
Last week: 14
Season high: 5
Season low: 18
Last match: Lost 2-0 v. Southampton
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Feb. 1 v. Sheffield United
12. Newcastle United — Getting a half-decade’s worth of good fortune in one season, and adding Nabil Bentaleb (for sure) and Valentino Lazaro (pending Friday medical) on loan-to-buy deals fill big holes. Watch the highlights from the match below and pretend you didn’t know the final score; Stunning turnabout.
Last week: 15
Season high: 11
Season low: 20
Last match: Drew 2-2 at Everton
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Feb. 1 v. Norwich City
11. Manchester United — Ole Gunnar Solskjaer saw “very many positives” in a poor display versus Liverpool, then repeated his “biggest club in the world” trope after bumbling versus Burnley. He’s in an impossible spot without Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford and not a terrible boss, but he’s certainly not the right man for the job right now. Light into them!
Last week: 3
Season high: 2
Season low: 16
Last match: Lost 2-0 v. Burnley
Up next: 12:30 p.m. ET Feb. 1 v. Wolves
10. Everton — The back line (and keeper) provided a point at West Ham, then gave away two versus Newcastle in what was otherwise a complete performance from Carlo Ancelotti‘s men. Otherwise.
Last week: 10
Season high: 5
Season low: 19
Last match: Drew 2-2 v. Newcastle United
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Feb. 1 at Watford
9. Liverpool — Just kidding… wanted to see if you were still reading.
Last week: 1
Season high: 1
Season low: 3
Last match: Won 2-1 at Wolves
Up next: 2:45 p.m. ET Wednesday at West Ham
9. Tottenham Hotspur — Family is good. A striker would be better.https://soccer.nbcsports.com/2020/01/21/sheffield-united-man-city-premier-league-aguero-de-bruyne-video/
Last week: 7
Season high: 2
Season low: 16
Last match: Lost 1-0 v. Liverpool
Up next: 11:30 a.m. ET Feb. 2 v. Man City
8. Arsenal — Nicolas Pepe hasn’t been so good the past couple of weeks, but how about this for a number? His 62 successful dribbles are 39 more than anyone else on the team despite playing only 1,345 minutes. Unique.
Last week: 11
Season high: 4
Season low: 13
Last match: Drew 2-2 at Chelsea
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Feb. 2 at Burnley
7. Southampton — James Ward-Prowse is getting England talk, and he deserves it. Saints are flying.
Last week: 9
Season high: 7
Season low: 20
Last match: Won 2-0 at Palace
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Feb. 1 at Liverpool
6. Sheffield United — Again, how remarkable is it that the newly-promoted Blades are letdown from only getting a point from Man City and Arsenal?
Last week: 6
Season high: 5
Season low: 17
Last match: Lost 1-0 v. Man City
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Feb. 1 at Crystal Palace
5. Chelsea — Judging from the Mixed Zone, Chelsea isn’t too worried about its disappointing draw with Arsenal. Will they be happy with a point at the King Power Stadium in two weeks?
Last week: 4
Season high: 2
Season low: 12
Last match: Drew 2-2 v. Arsenal
Up next: 7:30 a.m. ET Feb. 1 at Leicester City
4. Wolves — What if Diogo Jota finished that late chance versus Liverpool? You’d have to think it would’ve been richly deserved for their second half. Willy Boly‘s return is better than any result, though, as he rejoined the bench after a long absence.
Last week: 8
Season high: 3
Season low: 17
Last match:Lost 2-1 v. Liverpool
Up next: 12:30 p.m. ET Feb. 1 at Man Utd
3. Leicester City — Jamie Vardy’s injury is a concern, but the Foxes’ four-star showing versus West Ham was a refreshing result.
Last week: 5
Season high: 2
Season low: 10
Last match: Won 4-1 v. West Ham
Up next: 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday v. Chelsea
2. Manchester City — How long will Sergio Aguero stay in Manchester? All of the goal records are asking after his super sub showing. He’s one behind Vardy in the Golden Boot race.
Last week: 2
Season high: 1
Season low: 6
Last match: Won 1-0 at Sheffield United
Up next: 11:30 a.m. ET Feb. 2 at Spurs
1. Liverpool — Just magnificent, this guy. The commitment and fitness he’s provoked from his men are simply stunning.
Last week: 1
Season high: 1
Season low: 3
Last match: Won 2-1 at Wolves
Up next: 2:45 p.m. ET Wednesday at West Ham; 10 a.m. ET Feb. 1 v. Saints

2 Robbies podcast: Robbie Earle and Derek Rae talk Liverpool, Man Utd

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Robbie Earle is joined by Derek Rae to discuss the current state of Manchester United after their defeat to Burnley at Old Trafford (0:55), 10-man Arsenal fighting back to draw with Chelsea (11:55) and Liverpool’s historic run to start the season that just won’t seem to end (21:15).

Plus, Robbie and Derek share their thoughts on Sergio Aguero’s greatness at Manchester City (29:35), Tottenham under Jose Mourinho so far (35:05) and how things are shaping up at bottom in the fight for Premier League survival (37:35). Finally, Derek shares his Underappreciated Performers of the Premier League Season (41:55).

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

And you can follow them on Twitter @The2RobbiesNBC here.

Click here for The 2 Robbies archive ]