Can reigning champions Chelsea handle the pressure?

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Repeat after me Chelsea fans: “This is not the summer of 2016. This is not the summer of 2016.”

It isn’t, of course, but similarities between the last time Chelsea were defending champions of the Premier League and this time are starting to crop up.

There is legitimate reason for slight concern among the Chelsea ranks as largely the same group of players who struggled drastically following their last title campaign may have to wrestle their minds to stop them from getting into a similar situation once again.

Antonio Conte was short and sharp with the media following Chelsea’s defeat to Arsenal on penalty kicks in the FA Community Shield at Wembley on Sunday. He looked like a man with a lot on his mind, and rightly so.

Conte’s debut season in the PL couldn’t have gone better with a record 30 wins from 38 games as he left the Blues to the title. Many times throughout their run to the title last season Conte revealed that nobody expected Chelsea to win the PL given their incredible collapse the season before. He was right. Everyone through it would be a two to three year rebuild and there was no pressure on the Italian coach and his staff.

Now the pressure is real and cracks have started to appear ever since the end of last season.

First the way in which his side lost the FA Cup final to Arsenal in May grated with Conte and over preseason plenty of things seem to have chipped away at him.

Diego Costa‘s impending departure seems to be making Conte uneasy with Chelsea’s top scorer not returning to preseason training and totally banished from the first team. His replacement Alvaro Morata comes with a club-record price tag but Conte has already issued a warning to the Spanish striker that he needs to work on his fitness just a few days before the new season. Star playmaker Eden Hazard is recovering from ankle surgery and will miss the start of the season.

Add in to that shaky defensive displays against Bayern Munich and Inter Milan in preseason, plus a less than a stellar performance in the Community Shield, and there are definite issues for Conte to iron out, especially with Chelsea expected to push for the UEFA Champions League this season after their return to Europe.

That in itself will provide more tests for a Chelsea side who only had to focus on domestic competitions last season with a smaller squad than their PL rivals. It perhaps explains why Conte is pushing for more transfers in each and every press conference he appears. He needs plenty of top quality additions, and fast.

Virgil Van Dijk, Serge Aurier and Danny Drinkwater have all been mentioned as potential incomings in the next few days but don’t forget that last season Conte decided to make moves for David Luiz and Marcos Alonso on deadline day so Chelsea may decide to not do any business for the opening weeks of the season.

It’s not all doom and gloom with the starting XI still packed with quality, N'Golo Kante running the show in midfield, Willian buzzing around in attack and Gary Cahill standing tall, but the preparation for Chelsea’s title defense has been far from ideal. There’s no getting around it.

With Morata not up to speed, Chelsea’s two other new signings aren’t ready either with center back Antonio Rudiger returning late in preseason after Germany’s Confederations Cup success and new holding midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko recovering from a minor injury.

That means Conte will be down to the bare bones of his squad when the season kicks off this weekend against Burnley at Stamford Bridge with no Costa, Hazard, Bakayoko and now Nemanja Matic sold to Manchester United.

Yes, Chelsea’s business model of selling off talent at top prices when they no longer need them is admirable, plus their ability to sign talented youngsters to long-term deals and loan them out looks great but Nathaniel Chalobah leaving permanently for Watford, Nathan Ake sold to Bournemouth and Ruben Loftus-Cheek joining Crystal Palace on loan shows they were never going to be given a chance. Surely all three would have got more minutes this season given the increased number of games?

Circumstances allowed Chelsea to dominate last season and they did just that after the switch to a 3-4-3 formation defined their season.

But this season much more than formation change will define their title defense and success in Europe.

Conte not only has to contend with star players departing under a cloud (Costa) new players getting off to a slow start (Morata) and frustrations in the transfer market (Romelu Lukaku), but he must also realize that the likes of Luiz, Victor Moses and Pedro may not perform anywhere near the level we saw last season and they could return to their mean.

It’s highly unlikely the 2017-18 campaign will follow the same pattern of the 2015-16 season which saw Chelsea towards the relegation zone midway through the campaign and Jose Mourinho fired. Still, just two years removed from that nightmare it’s easy to understand why Chelsea’s fans are starting to wiggle around a little uneasily in their seat.

They’ve seen this script before and they don’t like it.

Key battles: Chelsea v. Bayern; Real Madrid v. Man City

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Two Premier League teams play in the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 this week as Chelsea host Bayern Munich and Man City head to Real Madrid in the first legs.

Which battles will determine the outcome of these games?

[ MORE: Predicting the UCL last 16 encounters ]

Below we take a look at three crucial head-to-head clashes which will be pivotal in deciding which teams will reach the quarterfinals.


Chelsea v. Bayern Munich

Antonio Rudiger v. Robert Lewandowski: The former has become a real threat from set pieces for Chelsea but his main role will be to stop the most lethal striker in Europe this season in Lewandowski’s. Bayern’s target man is ageing like a fine French win and has 40 goals to his name in all competitions for club and country. Chelsea’s defense has struggled at times this season and Lewa must be licking his chops in anticipation as he tries to win his first-ever Champions League title.

Jorginho v. Corentin Tolisso: Two pass-masters in central midfield will be a joy to watch. Jorginho has a more defensive role to play with N’Golo Kante out and the Italian will look to deliver perfectly weighted passes to get Chelsea’s attack going. As for Tolisso, his engine alongside Thiago Alcantara works really well and helps to plug plenty of gaps. The French international has class on the ball and he and Jorginho are very similar players.

Reece James v. Alphonso Davies: This is a battle we should all look forward to. Canadian star Davies has been a revelation at left back for Bayern and is encouraged to steam ahead and join in attacks whenever he can. James does exactly the same for Chelsea and has made the position his own in his debut season in the Premier League. These two players will be around at the top level and playing in the Champions League for a very long time and you can expect incisive runs up and down as they go head-to-head.

Real Madrid v. Man City

Casemiro v. Kevin De Bruyne: This will be one heck of a job for Real’s Brazilian destroyer. Of course, Casemiro can play too but his main role will be to shut down Kevin de Bruyne who has been in imperious form for Man City in recent weeks. When KDB is fit and firing on all cylinders he is almost unstoppable and he is a player who continues to be linked with a move to Real this summer amid the uncertainty over Man City’s two-season European ban.

Sergio Ramos v. Sergio Aguero: The master of the dark arts against the master of finishing will be fascinating viewing. The Sergio’s will put on a show and Aguero will fancy his chances of wriggling past Ramos and being the hero. That said, how many times have we written off Ramos in the past? The Real Madrid and Spain skipper seems to always find a way of coming out on top but he will be stretched to his limits as his Real defense try to put out fires all over the place with Aguero, KDB and Raheem Sterling or Gabriel Jesus popping up.

Karim Benzema v. Aymeric Laporte: The latter has been influential since his return from injury and his absence is the main reason Man City are so far behind Liverpool in the Premier League title race. Benzema’s physicality could cause Laporte some issues and like Ramos, he is underrated for a player who has been pivotal in winning four Champions League titles with Real Madrid. Laporte is good on the ball and Benzema’s clever turns and flicks means this battle will be more about brains than brawn.

Lyon-Juventus gets green light despite virus concerns

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LYON, France (AP) French club Lyon says its sold-out Champions League home game against Juventus will go ahead as planned on Wednesday despite the coronavirus outbreak in nearby Italy.

Lyon said in a statement on Tuesday it received the go-ahead from French authorities for the match to take place “in its initial configuration.”

Up to 3,000 Juventus fans coming from different regions of Italy are expected to attend Groupama Stadium for the last-16, first-leg match.

The fast-spreading virus from China has led to the postponement of Serie A games in northern Italy, where a cluster of the COVID-19 disease has caused seven deaths and towns to be locked down.

Health Minister Olivier Veran told RTL radio on Tuesday that France is not considering closing its border with Italy, nor banning big gatherings of people because it would not make sense.

Asked specifically about the Lyon-Juventus match, Veran said: “Should we ban gatherings? Should we stop the (Paris) Fashion Week? Should we stop matches? Should we close universities? The answer is no.”

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

The 2 Robbies podcast: Liverpool’s grit, Chelsea’s swagger and thrilling Arsenal

Liverpool v. West Ham recap and video highlights
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Robbie Earle & Robbie Mustoe review Matchweek 27 in the Premier League which saw Liverpool come from behind to beat West Ham 3-2 (0:50), Chelsea’s impressive 2-1 win over Tottenham (13:35) and Arsenal’s thrilling 3-2 victory over Everton (24:00). Plus, discussion on Leicester City 0-1 Manchester City (31:45), Manchester United 3-0 Watford (35:05) and our Underappreciated Performances of the weekend (40:00).

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

To listen to more lively conversations and passionate debate from Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe, subscribe to The 2 Robbies Podcast on Apple Podcasts or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

And you can follow them on Twitter @The2RobbiesNBC here.

Click here for The 2 Robbies archive ]

David Beckham’s Inter Miami finally ready to arrive

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This weekend Inter Miami CF will finally arrive in Major League Soccer.

Their much-anticipated MLS debut comes six years after David Beckham was awarded an expansion franchise in the Floridian city as his dream of owning a team is about to come true.

Good things come to those who wait, it seems.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage

Over the past six years the wait has been excruciating for soccer fans in and around Miami as stadium plans have been held up, Beckham and his wealthy investors almost pulled the plug on the deal entirely and endless mocking from other MLS fanbases led to many calls for Becks to move his expansion franchise to another U.S. city, one where it was easier to realize his dream. But he wanted his team to be in Miami.

Now Inter Miami have arrived, even if they are playing their first few seasons in a temporary home in Fort Lauderdale, 30 miles north of Miami, Beckham has talked about wanting to sign Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar and there’s no doubt players of that caliber would love to play in South Florida in the future.

Beckham has always wanted to do this properly but the struggle has been very real when it comes to finding the correct parcels of land in Miami to build a soccer-specific stadium for his new team. That was something MLS always wanted to happen and still do.

The original award of an expansion franchise was way back in 2014 but between then and 2018 there were serious doubts that this team would ever come to fruition. MLS commissioner Don Garber demanded a soccer-specific stadium in downtown Miami but in a strange way the stadium struggles with other MLS franchises has helped out Miami. New York City FC are still playing at Yankee Stadium, which was supposed to be a temporary home. Atlanta United play in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium they share with the Atlanta Falcons of the NFL. Nashville arrive in MLS this season calling the Tennessee Titans’ Nissan Stadium their home for at least a couple of seasons.

And Miami’s battle for a place to call home, permanently, continues to rumble on.

It is safe to say Beckham’s bid hasn’t gone smoothly since the former Manchester United, Real Madrid and LA Galaxy star announced his intentions to host his cut-price MLS expansion side in MIA. As part of his playing contract with the Galaxy, which he signed back in 2007, he was allowed to purchase an MLS franchise for $25 million upon retirement from the game. The latest MLS expansion fee paid to place a team in Charlotte, North Carolina was over $300 million.

Aside from his love for the game, you can understand why he wanted to get this done.

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Several stadium sites have come and gone over the years as a potential downtown waterfront site was first knocked back and then a deal collapsed to build a stadium next door to MLB’s Miami Marlins as we broke the news about that being a long shot. The Overtown site looked a shoe-in to happen but local councillors voted against the stadium as Beckham was once again left exasperated.

In the 2018 event to unveil the franchise once again (four years after the first unveiling) Bolivian billionaire Marcelo Claure revealed he and Beckham were ready to throw in the towel after years of searching unsuccessfully for a stadium site in Miami. Then local construction magnates Jorge and Jose Mas stepped in to join the ownership group, along with Masayoshi Son, but so far numerous stadium plans have failed to be approved across downtown Miami and its surrounding neighborhoods.

Miami Freedom Park is their preferred location for a permanent 25,000 capacity home, and although that process is moving along, they still need a key city council vote to make the stadium close to Miami International Airport a reality, plus there have been some issues with the plot of land containing potentially hazardous materials. More delays are surely on the way. That has led to Beckham and Co. potentially revisiting their stadium plan in Overtown.

And on and on it goes.

Of course, Beckham’s Inter Miami will not walk out onto ‘home turf’ until Mar. 14 when they host his former club, the LA Galaxy, in their 18,000 capacity temporary home in Fort Lauderdale and that could well be their home for a lot longer than that.

The training facility they have built on the site of the former Lockhart Stadium — which was home to the only other MLS franchise in Miami, the Fusion, which lasted four seasons before folding in 2001 — is impressive and their temporary home will see its capacity reduced and used for Inter Miami’s reserve side when they finally find a home stadium closer to Miami.

Stadium struggles aside, their first-ever game as an MLS franchise at LAFC on Sunday marks a monumental achievement for Beckham and his ownership group. With Diego Alonso at the helm and plenty of ambitious, yet smart, signings, this team will be extremely interesting to watch in their debut MLS season.

The fanbase will be one of the most interesting to watch and with Beckham and eventually other big-name superstar players around, Inter Miami CF will always be a team to keep an eye on. Now that they are here.

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Many times over the last six years this day looked like it would never come. Scepticism from fans, the ownership group and league officials that Inter Miami CF would ever walk out onto the pitch as an MLS club was rife.

On Sunday a six-year struggle will come to an end and then no matter what happens on the pitch, or with a stadium plan or with whatever star names do or do not sign for Inter Miami CF in the future, Beckham can rest easy knowing he delivered what he set out to achieve.

Finally.