Five takeaways from Chelsea v. Middlesbrough

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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.

Most to gain (or lose) from decisive USMNT matches

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The United States men’s national team will not be changing coaches regardless of the scores against Canada and Cuba this month, giving added incentive to 23 men called into the team to get the job done.

Long- and short-term injuries continue to open the door to players well past Gregg Berhalter’s top 23, even deeper considering the concurrent U-23 camp and the coach’s apparent disinterest in some other players still performing well in Europe.

Christian Pulisic, Zack Steffen, and Michael Bradley picked up injuries that won’t allow them to join the team, while Timothy Weah and Tyler Adams have just restarted training with their clubs after long injury absences. Miles Robinson is still absent after being injured at the last camp and missing Atlanta’s playoff run

Throw in Berhalter’s decision not to call up Matt Miazga, Duane Holmes, and Julian Green to go with Jozy Altidore‘s lack of fitness, and you’ve got another month for some players to surprise (We haven’t even mentioned Antonee Robinson, Cameron Carter-Vickers and Richie Ledezma are at a loaded U-23 camp).

Edit note: Maybe we need to write up a Top 50 USMNT depth chart this evening or soon…

Chase Gasper and Corey Baird were sent home from camp ahead of the European arrivals, so here are the players whose fortunes could hinge on delivering for a coach who needs it. Make no mistake about it: Earnie Stewart’s vote of confidence means the coach is going nowhere, but anyone who helps Berhalter score a berth in the CONCACAF Nations League semifinals will take a place near his heart.

Who’s gotta carpe sabbati? Read on…

Sebastian Lletget ,Jackson Yueill, Cristian Roldan (in that order) — We probably wrote something similar to this last month, but future camps without Tyler Adams, Christian Pulisic, and Weston McKennie are only going to happen if all are (again) injured or there is absolutely nothing on the line against Jamaica’s B Team.

Include Bradley’s absence and you’ll get an even deeper understanding of why who is chosen alongside McKennie and (probably) Alfredo Morales for this big match against Canada is a big deal. Lletget is 27 and Berhalter hasn’t shown a lot of love for him despite bringing a unique skill set and decent performances when he’s been given time on the USMNT pitch. Roldan might be the best non-prospect American player in MLS. Yueill is just 22, but again there are a lot of absent players ahead of him. We’re not included Wil Trapp in this discussion because he’s clearly a Berhalter favorite.

Out-fight Scott Arfield and out-fox Jonathan Osorio, and give Berhalter a reason to keep calling you into the fold.

The goalkeepers — There’s no reason to expect Zack Steffen to lose his first XI spot through injury, especially given his status as a Bundesliga starter on loan from a Champions League outfit — Oh, and he was Berhalter’s club No. 1, too! — but at some point these goalkeeper call-ups and their performances will determine who will be Nos. 2 and 3 for qualifying and for, probably, the 2022 World Cup.

Jonathan Klinsmann, Ethan Horvath, and Brady Scott aren’t here, and boy did Leicester City’s Chituru Odunze open some eyes during the U.S. flame-out at the U-17 World Cup.

So here’s Brad Guzan, the presumptive No. 1 in a post-Tim Howard world who proved presumptions aren’t foolproof.

Only two of Sean Johnson‘s eight caps were not friendlies, and both were Gold Cup clean sheets (six years apart). Might he get a chance in Orlando?

And Matt Turner is new here after an outstanding 2019 season in MLS. You can bet Berhalter rang up a respected Bruce Arena to get plenty of info before calling in the New England Revolution’s No. 1.

Aaron Long — This isn’t about gaining a spot on the squad, as the 27-year-old Long looks like a mainstay for Berhalter, rather a steady place in the XI. Miazga not being here could’ve been heard as a clarion call to the center backs who were called up.

Long has struggled in his past few months wearing the national team shirt, and a healthy John Brooks is an automatic starter. That leaves one spot, a pivotal one given Berhalter’s preferential formation, and Walker Zimmerman is a better passer than Long. This is a big camp for proving whether the Red Bulls man is a starter or security blanket.

Report: Galaxy leading way in Zlatan pursuit

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A report out of Italy hints at a win for the LA Galaxy when it comes to Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Football-Italia says the best offer sent the way of the big Swede, 38, is from the Galaxy, at about $15 million over two years.

MLS can pop its collar that the report says Ibrahimovic doesn’t believe Bologna is a big enough club to tempt him into a move away from LA, where he was MLS Best XI in consecutive seasons.

[ MORE: Stewart says Berhalter is safe ]

The report also notes that Napoli interest has cooled, while AC Milan (more on them later) and Manchester United have not made serious offers for the man with 456 career club goals and 173 assists between the Galaxy, Ajax, Man United, Juventus, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Barcelona, and Paris Saint-Germain.

Knowing the math, and that Zlatan has scored 53 times in 58 matches for United, you wonder whether he’s not hunting 500 club goals. He’s also a known trophy hunter. Both of those paths are markedly easier with the Galaxy than Bologna, and Ibrahimovic is already comfortable and locked in a fierce rivalry with Carlos Vela and LAFC.

Zlatan also had 116 caps with 62 goals for Sweden and is one of the biggest names to grace Major League Soccer’s pitches. Of course there’s a chance at his age that he could break down, or his form could drop off a cliff, but for now another run as both villain and hero in a major MLS market would be a win for the league (even if he regularly touts himself as bigger than the league).

While we have not seen Ibrahimovic in a top league since he was injured for Man United, there’s little doubt he could still do a job over there. He’s only 2.5 seasons removed from a 28-goal, 10-assist season in all comps for Man United.

Don’t sleep on the idea that AC Milan could make a call to Ibrahimovic’s people, having scored just three goals in their past four games including high-profile 1-goal losses to Roma, Juventus, and Lazio. Milan has just 11 goals in 12 league outings, and was supposed to be a Serie A threat without the schedule congestion of Europe.

Top teams in good shape as EURO 2020 qualifying reaches climax

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With the Netherlands missing out on Euro 2016 and Italy absent from the World Cup in 2018, some of Europe’s traditional soccer powers have surprisingly failed to advance to recent major international tournaments.

Don’t expect any big shocks when qualification for next year’s European Championship wraps up over the coming days.

Six teams – Belgium, Spain, Italy, Poland, Russia and Ukraine – have already booked their places in the tournament and the remaining 14 automatic qualifiers will be determined after the final group games.

World champion France, European champion Portugal, and heavyweights such as Germany, England and the Netherlands are in good shape to finish in the top two in their respective groups, ensuring spots in the Europe-wide finals taking place in June and July.

There are big opportunities for Europe’s so-called lesser soccer nations, too. Finland, for example, needs only to beat Liechtenstein to qualify for its first major tournament.

France, the World Cup winner last year, is tied on points with Turkey in Group H and will secure a top-two finish by beating Moldova on Thursday. In case of an upset in that game in Paris, the French have another shot at qualification at Albania on Sunday.

Portugal, led by Cristiano Ronaldo, is guaranteed to advance in the defense of its title with wins over Lithuania at home and Luxembourg away – the bottom two teams in Group B.

England needs one win from its final two games – at home to Montenegro on Thursday and away to Kosovo on Sunday – to top Group A.

Editor’s note: Need tickets for the England game? Click here

And in Group C, Germany and the Netherlands are tied on points and need a maximum of four points from their final two qualifiers. Both have to play Northern Ireland, which is three points behind in third place.

The last four qualifying spots for the 24-team Euros will be decided in the playoffs in March.

RONALDO’S CHALLENGE

Could Cristiano Ronaldo fail to qualify for a major tournament?

UEFA would hate to see the Portugal star miss out, but his team has lacked a spark in qualifying and is eight points off Group B leader Ukraine.

Portugal is favored to beat Lithuania on Thursday and Luxembourg on Sunday to secure second place.

Still, there’s little margin for error. Dropped points could allow Serbia to overtake, forcing Portugal into the playoffs.

ENGLAND LANDMARK

England will be playing its 1,000th men’s international in the match against Montenegro and the occasion will be marked in a number of ways, including recognizing the notable contributions of former players and managers. Players will wear individual “legacy numbers” on their jerseys.

England manager Gareth Southgate is hoping a line can be drawn following scenes last month when his players were racially abused by some Bulgaria fans during England’s 6-0 win in Sofia. The game was stopped on two occasions by the referee. England’s match away to Montenegro in March was also marred by racist chanting toward England’s black players, notably Raheem Sterling.

“The players will want to move on, really,” Southgate said. “I think, for all of them, they dealt with it brilliantly and it would be wrong not to discuss it at all but I know that they want to get on with the football.”

Kosovo, which was accepted as a member of UEFA and FIFA only in 2016, is third in the group and could secure automatic qualification with a win at the Czech Republic on Thursday and a draw against England.

FINALLY FINLAND?

Finland is the only Nordic team never to have qualified for a World Cup or a European Championship. That could all change this week.

The Finns are second in Group J, five points clear of both Armenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and will join Italy in advancing to the finals with a win at home against last-placed Liechtenstein on Friday or if Bosnia fails to beat the Italians. Finland’s second chance, if needed, comes against Greece on Monday.

Finland is coached by a primary school teacher, Markku Kanerva, who led the country to a first ever European Under-21 Championship in 2009 and is impressing with the senior team a decade on.

Teemu Pukki has seven goals in qualifying as the team looks to go further than it ever did with past greats such as Sami Hyypia and Jari Litmanen.

CROATIA AT RISK

Croatia is finding European qualifying harder than last year’s World Cup.

The Croatians lead the evenly matched Group E but if they lose to Slovakia on Saturday the World Cup finalists could end up relying on other results to go their way.

Another team in a fight to qualify is Switzerland, which is third in Group D behind Ireland and Denmark, but is a big favorite against Gibraltar.

PLAYOFF SHOOTOUT

The playoffs offer a last chance for unsuccessful teams, but it’s a complex process.

Sixteen teams who didn’t qualify automatically will be ranked according to their divisions from the 2018 Nations League and put into four single-elimination brackets.

At the bottom end, there’s the League D playoff, which is guaranteed to hand one team its debut at a major championship. Georgia and Belarus have secured a place in that playoff mini-tournament and will likely be joined by Kosovo and North Macedonia.

The highest division almost certainly won’t have enough unqualified teams to make a four-team bracket, so will recruit extras from lower tiers. That could hand League A’s Iceland a fortunate draw with League C teams such as Bulgaria and Israel.

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

AP Sports Writer James Ellingworth in Dusseldorf, Germany, contributed to this story

USMNT boss Berhalter won’t be fired; USA confident of making World Cup

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USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter is under pressure, but he will not be fired if they lose against Canada or Cuba in the coming days.

Or anytime soon, for that matter.

That is the resounding message of support from USMNT General Manager Earnie Stewart, who spoke to reporters via a conference call on Tuesday and had to answer plenty of questions about the U.S. losing 2-0 at 69th ranked Canada last month.

Stewart batted away speculation about Berhalter’s future, as the USMNT need to win their remaining two CONCACAF Nations League Group A games against Canada in Orlando on Friday and then against Cuba, plus overturn a three-goal deficit on Canada, to reach the finals of the inaugural tournament.

“We’re looking at the future. So when I evaluate Gregg and the staff, what I’ve seen today, I’m a pleased man. An individual result is not going to change that,” Stewart said. “I’ve seen that progress, and when you look at these individual results of the Canada away game, no, we weren’t happy. We weren’t happy at all. We have now a moment to rectify that as well. This Friday is about that. We need to perform.”

Stewart then doubled down in his support of Berhalter and this group of players, led by the likes of Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and now Sergino Dest, saying he is incredibly confident of reaching the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

“I have no fear at all that we are not going to qualify for the World Cup. I am very, very confident of that,” Stewart added.

The former USMNT player then revealed he’s felt personally attacked by the USMNT fanbase accusing the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) of nepotism as Jay Berhalter, Gregg’s brother, is high up in USSF and running to becoming the new CEO.

“I am the one making the decisions. All the conspiracy theories out there are very disrespectful to me and to the individuals: to Jay Berhalter, to Gregg Berhalter, myself,” Stewart said. “When people insinuate these things … I’ve worked a little bit too hard to be in the position where I’m in today to actually have people think that.”

Berhalter’s reign has seen mixed results so far, as the USMNT reached the 2019 Gold Cup final but were beaten by Mexico’s B team in the summer.

They were smashed 3-0 by Mexico’s A team in a friendly in September and the lackluster displays have infuriated the USMNT fanbase who have been hurting for over two years since the failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

Aside from the results, the major issues have been the possession-based style of play not seeming to suit the USMNT player pool, with so many talented youngsters struggling to adapt to what Berhalter wants, plus some player seemingly picked regardless of their performances.

So, Berhalter will stay, for now. But when is the next major flashpoint?

2022 World Cup qualifying starts next summer and if the USMNT get off to a bad start, it will be intriguing to see how Stewart and USSF react.

No matter what Stewart says this is a federation, and coach, under pressure. Let’s see if his team respond.