Five takeaways from Chelsea v. Middlesbrough

Leave a comment

LONDON — If the blue ribbons weren’t already being tied onto the Premier League trophy, you can go ahead and do that now.

[ MORE: What now for Fabregas?

After Antonio Conte‘s side beat Middlesbrough 3-0 at Stamford Bridge on Monday, Chelsea need three more points to be crowned Premier League champions (they play West Bromwich Albion on Friday when they can seal the deal) while Boro were relegated back to the Championship at the first attempt.

Here’s five takeaways from a routine win for the champions elect.


FABREGAS IS MAGIC

Within the first 12 minutes of the game Cesc Fabrgeas had hit three pinpoint long passes over the top of Middlesbrough’s defense which twice found Marcos Alonso and then Diego Costa couldn’t quite get on the end of the third pass. He missed a glorious chance when Hazard pulled it back to him on the edge of the box but moments later made up for it as his inviting pass found Diego Costa to slot home the opener. He also found Victor Moses with another delicate chip but his shot was saved and Fabregas had a goalbound volley deflected wide in the second half before teeing up Nemanja Matic for Chelsea’s third.

Yet another defense unlocked by Fabregas who has now picked up four assists in his last three appearances for Chelsea.

After coming into the starting lineup for the injured N'Golo Kante, Fabregas was pulling all the strings for Chelsea in the deep-lying midfield role. The Spanish midfielder turned 30 last week and although he oozed class throughout his status as a regular in Conte’s midfield is questionable at best. Fabregas has started just 11 PL games this season, with 15 appearances from the bench.

Should Fabregas stay at Stamford Bridge this summer and battle for his place once again next season and be content with more appearances due to European competition returning for Chelsea? He may do just that. On this form Chelsea certainly wouldn’t let him move to another Premier League club but rumors persist that a move to AC Milan or Inter could be options. Despite his lack of gametime throughout the season, Fabregas backed up what Chelsea’s fans sing about him. He is indeed magic. Especially when the opposition give him that much time and space to operate in.


CHELSEA READY TO CLINCH AT THE HAWTHORNS

Friday night in West Bromwich in the West Midlands is where this Chelsea team are likely to seal the title.

Throughout the win against Boro, Chelsea’s fans sung “we’re gonna win the league, we’re gonna win the league!” in lackadaisical fashion. A sixth league title (fifth in the Premier League era) is all but confirmed.

Conte’s men need three more points to seal the title and they’ve responded superbly to the 2-0 defeat at Manchester United on Apr. 16. Since then they’ve won three-straight games and the threat of Tottenham only loomed for a few days before the Blues’ ruthless machine once again sped away.

With no European action to tire them, Conte’s passion on the sidelines, a supreme midfielder in N’Golo Kante, stunning displays from Eden Hazard, the goals of Diego Costa and a rock solid defense led by David Luiz, Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta, Chelsea’s procession to the title has been predictable for some time.

Jet-propelled by their 13-game winning run in the middle of the season following Conte’s switch to a 3-4-3 formation after the loss at Arsenal, nobody has been close to matching this Chelsea team all season.

If they beat West Brom on Friday they’ll confirm what we’ve known for some time: Chelsea is the best team in the Premier League by a country mile.


ALONSO THE GREAT

Marcos Alonso hit the crossbar after two minutes. He then scored with a vicious strike at the near post after 34 minutes and had another show just miss Costa at the back post in the second half.

The Spanish full back has been a revelation at left wing-back this season and has vindicated Antonio Conte’s decision to pay Fiorentina $29.7 million for him. It was one of those signings, along with David Luiz, in the final minutes of the summer transfer deadline which made you sit up and say “why have Chelsea done that?”

Alonso’s displays have answered that question. He adds balance, especially in attack and he is neither a full back who simply likes to defend and not one who simply likes to bomb forward every time he gets a chance. With reports rife that Ryan Bertrand could sign from Southampton this summer, it is hard to understand why Chelsea need a new left back. In this 3-4-3 formation Alonso (and Victor Moses) is so important. Yes, they aren’t the biggest stars but they’re getting the job done comfortably.

After stints at Bolton and Sunderland in the past, 26-year-old Alonso will finally be able to call himself a Premier League winner soon. His displays this season are certainly deserving of that medal.


GUZAN READY TO RETURN TO MLS

Brad Guzan‘s goal was peppered with efforts on Monday as the U.S. national team goalkeeper saved well early on from Alonso but was then caught out at his near post by Alonso for Chelsea’s second. All three of Chelsea’s goals nutmegged Guzan as the Illinois native didn’t have his best day.

Guzan, 32, is probably relieved to be heading back to Major League Soccer with Atlanta United next month after an eight-year stint in England. He battled his way back at Aston Villa after virtually being released but then manager Paul Lambert brought him back to become Villa’s starter and he shone at Villa Park. After their relegation from the PL last season he landed at Boro but quickly found himself second choice behind Victor Valdes for much of this season.

Since mid-April he’s started five games on the trot and is at least ending his time in the PL with playing time, even though it’s on a team which has been relegated.

Guzan comes under the “he’s a good age for a goalkeeper” category with arguably his best years ahead of him and he’ll be the USMNT number one for many years to come.


BORO BELITTLED

At times it was excruciating to watch Boro play on Monday. Caretaker boss Steve Agnew tried his best to spur on his players from the sidelines but it was no use. Chelsea were in a different universe, let alone world, to Boro.

After Aitor Karanka‘s sacking in March, there seemed to be only one outcome for Boro. Relegation was confirmed on Monday but it had been coming since the turn of the year as their meager return of 26 goals in 36 PL games is the worst in the PL.

Is Agnew the right man to move them forward? Time will tell. Loyal chairman Steve Gibson will need to follow Newcastle United’s model of spending big to come straight back at the first attempt next season. First and foremost he needs to get a new man in charge to help give Boro a new identity.

They’ve huffed and puffed and hung in games for most of the season, but that’s about it.

Watch Live: Wolves v. Liverpool

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Liverpool has the opportunity to go 16 points ahead of the pack still with a game in hand as they visit Wolverhampton Wanderers at 3:00 p.m. ET live on NBCSN or live online at NBCSports.com.

[ STREAM LIVE: Wolves v. Liverpool ]

Reds boss Jurgen Klopp has decided to keep Joe Gomez in the starting lineup alongside Virgil Van Dijk at center-back, with Joel Matip on the bench. Matip has not featured since returning from a knee injury. Van Dijk, meanwhile, continues to power along as Liverpool’s rock, making his 23rd start of the season having played every single minute of the Premier League campaign thus far.

Liverpool has Georginio Wijnaldum in midfield alongside captain Jordan Henderson and creative force Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, while Fabinho sits on the bench.

For Wolves, the hosts make no changes from the wild 3-2 win over Southampton last time out. Portuguese boss Nuno sees Raul Jimenez lead the line yet again, looking to follow up his game-saving brace against the Saints that leveled the scoreline in the 65th minute before giving Wolves the lead for good 10 minutes later. The pair marked the first two goals of the new year for the Mexican, who hadn’t scored since the December 27th win over Manchester City.

Adama Traore also looks to continue his good form, having assisted two of the goals against Southampton and generally terrorizing Premier League clubs since the turn of the calendar year.

Wolves has scored just one goal in its last six league games against Liverpool, all losses. They do, however, have moxie this season, having gained gained 18 points from losing positions this season, seven more than any other club.

NCAA D1 soccer to vote on expanded season

Getty Images
Leave a comment

A report by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Jonathan Tannenwald has revealed that NCAA Division 1 men’s soccer is close to heading towards a full-season schedule, expanding the current fall schedule that sees the College Cup finish up around mid-December.

Tannenwald’s report, which cites Maryland head coach Sasho Cirovski who has led the charge for a full calendar season, states that the new proposal would drop the regular season schedule from 25 to 23 total games, but would expand the campaign across the entire school year. The first half would consist of 13 games and end around Thanksgiving, before picking back up in the spring with nine official games. Three exhibitions would be spread around the season, as opposed to the current setup of five meaningless exhibition games all set in the spring offseason.

The main goal of the plan, which is years in the making, is to eliminate midweek games, helping to cut down on missed class time for players. At least, that’s what Cirovski is selling to the NCAA. His true goal is to help players get used to a full professional schedule, knowing that currently, collegiate players tend to hit a wall in their first few professional seasons, holding their careers back.

Tannenwald reports that the eventual vote, which will be held in April, will consist of 64 total submissions. Each Power 5 conference will have four votes each, while the Group of 5 conferences get two votes each and the remaining conferences get one vote each. To pass, the proposal needs a full majority, meaning 33 yes votes are required out of the 64. The report states that the Atlantic 10 confirmed to the Inquirer that they will vote yes to the proposal, while the Ivy League said it will vote no.

“The college coaches on the men’s side are going to be working hand in hand for the next three months to try to get us to the finish line, to do something that is transformational, an evolutionary and positive change, and a game-changer in this country for not only college soccer, but we feel for soccer in general,” Cirovski said.

The report states that Cirovski has solid support from inside the college soccer space, and also in the pro soccer community where there is excitement that the new proposal will help development and transition from college soccer to professional life. It says that while this would only cover the Division 1 men’s schedule for now, it’s likely that the women’s ranks would follow soon after should this initial proposal pass through, and D2 and D3 could also tag along.

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Chelsea searching for striker

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Chelsea is still determining how long the club will be without talismanic striker Tammy Abraham after an ankle injury saw him limp his way through the final few minutes of the 2-2 draw with Arsenal. Chelsea had run out of substitutes so Abraham was forced to stay on, but he was clearly struggling at the end and now the club waits on further testing.

While the Blues were already linked with strikers before Abraham’s ankle trouble, they have now reportedly stepped up the chase for a short-term injury replacement. Widely reported as the club’s first choice, it appears that Edinson Cavani – who handed in a transfer request at PSG, the French club confirmed – will likely move to Atletico Madrid.

That has seen Chelsea look to other options, and according to multiple tabloids across England as well as some fringe reports in France, the Blues have reopened talks with Lyon over the availability of Moussa Dembele. The 23-year-old former Fulham youth product has been prolific this season for the French club, scoring 11 goals in 19 Ligue 1 games plus another four in four domestic cup matches. Still, Lyon reportedly rebuffed a $44 million bid earlier this month which at the time ended the conversation.


Manchester United’s public chase of Sporting CP midfielder Bruno Fernandes has taken yet another twist.

According to a report by Portuguese publication Record, an unnamed agent of Fernandes has a signed agreement with the club for a $5.5 million fee should he arrive with a $55 million transfer bid that the club rejects. This could potentially put pressure on Sporting to sell the 25-year-old whereas the club had been playing hardball on his valuation.

The report does not specify which agent the clause is connected to, which is notable because it could either be Fernandes’s personal agent or superagent Jorge Mendes who reportedly struck a deal with the club to help broker this transfer. Mendes is on record saying that Fernandes will leave Sporting, but they may wait until the summer to pull the trigger.

Even former Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho had jokes about the drawn out transfer saga regarding Bruno Fernandes. After Tottenham’s win over Norwich on Wednesday, Mourinho jabbed with a reporter, approaching him about his assignment in Portugal covering the transfer rumor. “How was Lisbon?” Mourinho asked in jest. “Lisbon was good? So Bruno Fernandes come to United or no?” Mourinho said. “So you go to Lisbon and he’s not coming? But coming or no?”


According to Italian journalist Gianluca di Marzio, Newcastle is nearing a loan deal for 23-year-old Inter wide player Valentino Lazaro. The report states that Newcastle has entered a loan bid involving a $1.7 million fee that includes a $26 million option to buy at the end of the season.

Lazaro joined Inter this past summer from German club Hertha Berlin for about $25 million, but has failed to make an impact at his new home, with just six Serie A appearances to date and just three of those starts. He has not collected a goal and has just one assist, resulting in significant time on the bench. With the arrival of Victor Moses and Ashley Young this winter, Inter is hoping to offset the additions to the squad with the sale of Lazaro.

The Austrian international scored three goals and assisted seven others last season with Hertha, earning his move to Inter. As a right-sided player, he would be direct competition for USMNT international DeAndre Yedlin who is currently on the shelf after suffering a hand injury.


Multiple Italian tabloids have picked up on the rumor that Carlo Ancelotti has plugged back into his Napoli roots in the hopes of convincing Brazilian midfielder Allan to join Everton this winter.

According to both Gianluca di Marzio and Tuttomercadoweb, Ancelotti has made contact with Napoli regarding the striker, although he has heavy competition from Inter. The 29-year-old has been with Napoli since joining in 2015 from Udinese, and he has logged significant time this season, making 14 Serie A appearances and five more in Champions League play.

Known as a tough tackler, Allan would take a significant investment by Everton to pry him loose mid-season, given his importance in the Napoli squad and his current contract that runs through the summer of 2023.


Italian publication Tuttosport thought it prudent to report that Manchester United is considering bringing Carlos Tevez back to the Premier League on loan. He’s started one game for Boca Juniors since late August. Yea, that ain’t happening.

Aston Villa signs 16-year-old Barry from Barcelona youth squad

Getty Images
Leave a comment

On Thursday morning, Aston Villa announced the signing of 16-year-old Barcelona youth player Louie Barry, who will move straight into the academy squad at Villa Park.

Barry, an England youth international who moved from West Brom’s youth program to Barcelona last summer, has reportedly struggled to integrate in Spain and eventually opted to move back to his home country. According to the Barcelona release on Barry’s departure, Villa paid the Spanish club around $1.16 million for Barry’s signature, and reports suggest that could increase significantly with bumpers in the deal.

“It sends a powerful message about the ambition of this football club,” Academy manager Mark Harrison told VillaTV upon the initial club release of the news. “We’re delighted – Louie is a local person and his family are all Villa fans, as is Louie. He is still a very young man but as he’s developed, he’s always been one player that you always recognize as having outstanding attributes. He’s got a fantastic mentality, he’s desperate to do well for this football club.”

Barry’s departure from West Brom is still being resolved, with Barcelona still yet to pay the English club the standard $308,000 fee for international youth players that turn down professional contracts.

Aston Villa has dipped significantly into its academy products this season, with Indiana Vassilev, Cameron Archer and Jacob Ramsey all making first-team debuts at certain points. Vassilev, a USMNT youth international, has made two Premier League appearances at just 18 years old, coming off the bench for decent spells against Brighton and Watford this month. Archer played a substitute role in an EFL Cup game against Crewe Alexandria, while Ramsey played in an EFL Cup game against Brighton and saw action in the FA Cup loss to Fulham.