Premier League Playback: Five reasons why Chelsea can win the title

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CHELSEA FOR REAL?

Four wins on the spin. No goals conceded. Diego Costa and Eden Hazard in top form. Antonio Conte is settling in to life in the Premier League rather nicely after a rocky start.

[ MORE: Defense rules for Conte ]

Here’s a look at five key reasons why the Blues can go all the way and win the Premier League this season.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

When speaking to the media following his teams impressive 2-0 win away at Southampton on Sunday, Conte believes it is too early for title talk.

“We know that the road is long but the confidence is increasing… It’s not important for us to look at the table now,” Conte said. “If you ask me a prediction or an expectation of our championship, it’s very difficult to talk about this.”

1: 3-4-3 formation

The new system Conte put into place following back-to-back defeats in September has been a revelation. It is getting the best out of his Chelsea players and that is exactly what he vowed to do after the 3-0 drubbing at Arsenal on Sept. 24. He used that defeat as ammunition to transform how his side would play. It gets the best out of the vast majority of Chelsea’s players, even if the likes of veteran defenders John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic will be on the outside looking in. Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta have been key in starting attacks from the back and David Luiz has been forced to be more disciplined as the central defender in a three-man back line.

With Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses both hardly star names, they’ve slotted in to wing back roles seamlessly and epitomize this strong defensive unit Conte has created. Chelsea gave Southampton the ball for long periods on Sunday but Saints never truly looked like getting in-behind the Blues. With a solid back five when defending, plus N'Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic sitting in front, it just doesn’t seem like Chelsea will concede many goals this season. With this group of players at his disposal, Conte is taking a team built to be solid defensively by Jose Mourinho to the next level of defensive solidity. The old adage of “defense wins championships” rings true with this Chelsea team.

2: No European action

This is one of the most overlooked factors in why Chelsea could go all the way. With no European action at all this season (and no EFL Cup action either after being knocked out by West Ham last week), Conte will have all week to debrief his side on the win against Southampton and then set them up for the game against Everton. That is a huge benefit for a new manager to help get his ideas across, especially since switching to a new formation, and like we saw with Brendan Rodgers‘ Liverpool during the 2013-14 campaign, it can be hugely beneficial with title rivals such as Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Manchester City all battling in the UEFA Champions League.

3: Eden Hazard

He’s back to his best. Hazard scored early and grabbed an assist on Costa’s wonder-goal as he had a goal and an assist in the same Premier League game for the first time since April 2015. The Belgian wizard went missing for most of last season but under Conte he seems rejuvenated and is relishing his role as the ball carrier and tempo-setter on the break. As impressive as Chelsea’s defensive solidity was against Saints, the ability for them to spring counters was equally effective as Hazard, Costa, Pedro and then Alonso and Moses when they caught up with play, can turn defense into attack in an instance. Hazard, 25, has already scored more goals this season through 10 games than he had throughout his 31 PL outings in a dreadful campaign last time out. If Chelsea has any chance of winning the PL, Hazard will have to stay on top form. Along with Costa (the top scorer in the PL with seven) he is the key to delivering goals within the structure of this new defensive formation. It seems like Chelsea is somewhat replicating Leicester’s hugely successful model of countering from last season.

4: Unity

This seems like a buzzword but it is something Chelsea hasn’t had for over 12 months. This time last year many cracks were already starting to show as Mourinho had less than six weeks left in a job with things unraveling quickly. Team unity seemed to be hit hard with unrest appearing in the dressing room and certain players woefully out of form. Hazard and Costa have regained their best play but with Cesc Fabregas, Terry and Ivanovic out, there’s a new look to the core of this Chelsea team. Whether or not players are starting, they all seem to be singing from the same hymn sheet and trust Conte’s vision and plan. He’s said that multiple times recently and when ProSoccerTalk asked him following the 4-0 thumping of Manchester United about the defensive improvement, his answer was telling:

“After two defeats and conceding two or three goals in every game, it was important for us to change something and to find a new solution. I think this suit is very good for the team and our squad. Now we must continue,” Conte told ProSoccerTalk. “I always thought that the system is not important. It is more important, the commitment to trust in the work and work very hard and also to follow the principles and my idea of football. That pleased me because when you see this in the game you go in your house and you are happy.”

5: Conte’s charisma

Speaking of Conte, his charisma is infectious and he lives for the game. Charging up and down the touchline he expects maximum effort from his players and he is getting it. Even in his press conferences he has a relaxed persona and breaks out a cheeky grin every now and then. Following his incessant rallying of the home crowd in the final minutes of Chelsea’s big win against Manchester United (something Jose Mourinho took exception to) we got a glimpse as to how he’s trying to knit everything together.

He seems just on the right side of being a mad genius. His warm hugs with players after the game, constantly thanking the fans for their support and leaps of delight into the air of during goal celebrations are like a breath of fresh air following the doldrums of the latter months of the Mourinho era and then the uncertainty during Guus Hiddink‘s interim stint. Conte will use his charisma and experience from title races in the past to try and push Chelsea not only to their target of a top four finish but beyond it. He has reinvigorated a squad of players who looked down and out last season.


MOURINHO MELTDOWN IN FULL FLOW

“Reinvigorate” is not a term you can associate with former Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho went it comes to the current torrid period he is enduring at Manchester United.

Let’s look back at Mourinho’s last seven days…

Yep. It all seems to be happening again, doesn’t it? Very familiar.

Mourinho, 53, doesn’t seem to have learned much from his lessons at Chelsea where he saw things unravel drastically last season, just six months or so after delivering the Premier League title. The self-proclaimed “Special One” isn’t adapting his approach and after 16 years as a manager, should we really expect him to? Maybe this is it. Maybe this is all Mourinho has. Sure, he’s adapted and evolved a little over time but he is still stuck in his ways with his petulant sideline behavior, ostracizing of big money players and solid, but somewhat dated, tactics. It seems like the Jurgen Klopp‘s, Mauricio Pochettino‘s and Conte’s of this world are now the ones calling the shots and dictating the next generation of tactical innovations.

Mourinho is in danger of being left behind and it increasingly seems like there’s a big disconnect between himself and his players.

Murmurs from the dressing room about him not being too hands on has been telling. He is going through the same problems he had at Real Madrid and then at Chelsea the second time around. The careers of young players are stalling. Zlatan Ibrahimovic isn’t scoring. He can’t get the best out of Paul Pogba and he is making an example of Wayne Rooney by leaving him out of the team. Think back to Mourinho’s meltdowns at Real and Chelsea. Very similar patterns are emerging with star players underperforming (Hazard, Fabregas, Costa at Chelsea, even Ronaldo at Real) and his treatment of John Terry, at times, and Iker Casillas is very similar to how Rooney is currently being treated. Mourinho isn’t in full meltdown mode yet, but he is currently hurtling towards it.

As Robbie Mustoe mentioned in the clip above, the situation is recoverable. However, Mourinho has a gigantic job to turn things around so early on in his United career. He will be given time to do that but things are in serious danger of unraveling rather quickly.


TOP DOGS ROLLING

With Chelsea setting out its stall as an ultra-defensive side, the other title contenders smashed home the goals this weekend.

Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City all scored four times in big away wins and all three are joint-top of the Premier League on 23 points. Good luck separating these guys.

Top spot belongs to City due to their superior goal difference and Pep Guardiola‘s side were purring early against West Brom and never looked back. With Sergio Aguero now having 13 goals in 13 games in all competitions this season following hi brace at the Hawthrons this weekend, the Argentine sent out a little reminder to his manager: underestimate me at your peril. Aguero was left out of City’s starting lineup at Barcelona two weeks ago but with his second goal on Saturday he underlined the class which oozes out of him. He’s a predator. Pep insists he knows it and revealed Aguero will start for City against Barcelona on Tuesday in their huge UEFA Champions League game.

Arsenal will all but secure their place in the UCL’s last 16 if they beat Ludogorets on Tuesday but in the Premier League Arsene Wenger‘s side eased to a 4-1 win away at Sunderland, even though the Black Cats equalized through a spot kick in the second half. In truth, the Gunners were on cruise control and could’ve been 2-0 or 3-0 up at half time but they took their foot of the gas and it took an inspired sub to propel them to victory. Olivier Giroud scored with each of his first two touches after coming on and the brilliant Alexis Sanchez grabbed his second of the game as Arsenal coasted to a seventh win in their last eight Premier League games.

Liverpool didn’t quite coast to victory at Crystal Palace but the 4-2 win could’ve been a lot more comfortable for Jurgen Klopp’s side had their defending been better and finishing a little more on point. Saturday’s game was a textbook example of how Klopp has encouraged forward runs from deep positions in this Liverpool team. Adam Lallana, Philippe Coutinho and Sadio Mane just kept running at Palace who didn’t know what to do but hung in there, much to their credit. Dejan Lovren‘s mistakes at the other end highlighted why perhaps this season could be too early for a massive title push for Liverpool but, like Chelsea, they have no European action to worry about and plenty of time to sort defensive issues out on the training ground. Another good weekend for the PL’s top scorers in 2016.


SUNDERLAND: A MESS

Poor old David Moyes.

Towards the end of Sunderland’s 4-1 defeat against Arsenal at the Stadium of Light on Saturday, home fans streamed out in their thousands. They’d seen enough. They’ve seen enough most weekends these days and in fact, for the last few years.

Sunderland has now equaled the worst-ever start to a season in Premier League history as they have  just two points through the opening 10 games of the season. Even though they lacked the quality of Arsenal, at the start of the second half they looked dangerous and equalized. But, as has so often been the case not just this season but over the last few terrible campaigns, the Black Cats were simply blown away late on.

It is worth pointing out that this is not totally Moyes’ fault.

He is dealing with a squad he had hardly any time to assemble this summer following the hasty departure (then disgrace) of Sam Allardyce to England and the players he now has represent the leftover remnants of four managers in two seasons. It’s a mess. Spending time in the north east city recently, everyone seems to have already given up on being in the PL next season. One taxi driver told me the best thing that could happen to Sunderland was relegation so they could start again. It’s not a bad argument to make.

If Sunderland’s fans look down the road at rivals Newcastle United, they will see a club which is top of the second-tier and benefiting greatly from relegation from the PL. Under Rafael Benitez they’ve been given a chance to rebuild their identity and philosophy as a club and when they are inevitably promoted back to the PL in May then there’s a good chance they’ll be at least a top 10 PL team for the foreseeable future.

Sunderland’s future is looking bleak with Moyes. As he said himself just a few weeks into the job, they’re embroiled in a relegation battle. Right now, Sunderland and Moyes seemed doomed. The downward spiral this club has been on for the lat four years suggests they will fire the Scottish manager by December and try to gamble on someone else sparking life into the squad. It may have worked in each of the last five PL campaigns but this current Black Cats squad seems woefully short on quality to remain in the top-flight.


Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here

Carlos Vela scored a celestial goal. We are blessed to have seen it

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Carlos Vela is making all other spectacular individual MLS seasons look run of the mill.

I mean, look at the gumption on this guy.

[ VIDEO: Rooney sent off, Kamara scores golazo ]

The Cancun-born playmaker left the San Jose Earthquakes back line on the beach with a soft shoe routine to give LAFC its third goal in a 4-0 win on Thursday

Vela, 30, now has 25 goals and 11 assists in 25 league matches for LAFC this season. He added two goals and an assist in Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup play.

But this one, yeah, this one takes the cake.

First, there’s Vela’s non-chalant dummy before picking up the pass.

Then, there’s Florian Jungwirth’s body language during and after his being cooked with a nutmeg. That’s an entire mood.

Next, Vela dribbles around the keeper and allows a slide tackler so glide past him before finishing with aplomb, the magic touch his going near post as if to say, “Can I beat this guy a second time, or do I have to use the easier route?”

Diego Rossi also had a goal and an assist, while Mark-Anthony Kaye continued his strong season with an assist to ex-Fiorentina prospect Joshua Perez. It’s a first MLS goal for the California-born Perez, now 21.

WATCH: Rooney sees red for forearm shiver, Kamara scores golazo

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Midweek MLS provided plenty to talk about on Wednesday, with two red cards and a golazo in one match alone.

The two main talking points from the New York Red Bulls’ 2-1 win over DC United weren’t really part of what led the victors to three points.

[ MORE: Europa League preview ]

How? Well, one of the world’s marquee names earned a red card via VAR and a returning star scores an absolute stunner, that’s how.

Here’s Ola Kamara’s debut marker for the Black-and-Red, adding to a record which included 49 goals in 97 matches between Columbus and the LA Galaxy before moving to the Chinese Super League for a wildly disappointing time with Shenzhen FC.

All of that is forgotten.

As for the Rooney incident, the Red Bulls already led 1-0 when DC’s star striker went forearm shiver on Cristian Casseres Jr.

It’s the second red of the season for Rooney, who is set for Derby County in January.

Amro Tarek was later sent off for the Red Bulls, who moved ahead of DC in the standings. Kaku and Daniel Royer had RBNY’s goals.

Newcastle takeover could be back on if in holiday relegation battle

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How much do Newcastle United supporters dislike their owner Mike Ashley right now?

Enough that this report is likely to condemn many to hoping their favorite club in the world is in the Bottom 3 come Christmas.

[ MORE: Europa League preview ]

The Chronicle’s Mark Douglas speculates that Ashley will lower his asking price for the club if it is in a relegation fight come December — something that looks certain after the Steve Bruce-led Magpies got bossed around by promoted Norwich City.

Nothing But Newcastle transcribed Douglas’ chatter from his podcast, in which he says,

“It wouldn’t surprise me if we hear more in December because there are still people sniffing around that football club and if the team are in the bottom three, there’ll be people thinking they can get a bargain out of Mike Ashley again. … He will probably more open to listening to lower offers in January and December which is what happened last December. He was basically saying ‘take it off my hands, you now have to take the risk’'”

This is notable for two reasons. First: the social experiment of wondering how many fans could see themselves rooting for their team to take a major and perilous back step just to see the back of a man they perceive is at the root of their failures (and that perception is widespread in this case).

But second, we can see if this rumor comes true because it’s difficult to imagine Newcastle as comfortably mid table by Christmas.

Fan protests and anger are nothing new, but here’s an effort to show how wobbly Ashley’s reputation is on Tyneside: Fans have taken to selling a black and white striped shirt with player name and number but no sponsor just so they can have a Newcastle jersey that doesn’t put money into Ashley’s pockets. And this is after he broke the club’s transfer record twice in one year.

If we’ve learned anything from the past few seasons, though, it’s that boycotts and anger will spur Ashley into insisting that he’s willing to sell and just conveniently enough it will be before the January transfer window. He “won’t be able to buy any players” with the takeover in play, and talks will hit a wall come late January, when they’ll loan a couple young players from Top Six sides.

Yes he spent significant money on Joelinton, Allen Saint-Maximin, and others this summer, but one decent window doesn’t make a culture. Count us amongst the skeptical, for now.

Messi back in training, could be fit for Betis

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Lionel Messi was back in full training again on Wednesday and may be fit to face Real Betis in the Spanish league on Sunday.

Messi had been training separately from the squad since injuring his right calf in the preseason.

He missed the team’s 1-0 loss to Athletic Bilbao in the league opener on Friday.

Barcelona has not said how long it expects Messi to be sidelined.

[ MORE: Europa League preview ]

Coach Ernesto Valverde is also dealing with injuries to forwards Luiz Suarez and Ousmane Dembele.

Dembele is certain to miss Sunday’s match at the Camp Nou because of a left thigh injury that should keep him out for about five weeks.

Suarez also isn’t likely to play this weekend because of a muscle injury sustained before halftime of Friday’s game in Bilbao.

Two-time defending champion Barcelona hadn’t loss a league opener in 10 seasons.

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