Sarri says Chelsea were nervous; Kante praised but must improve

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LONDON — Chelsea got the win against Fulham to keep them among the chasing pack at the top of the Premier League table, but Maurizio Sarri knows his team must improve drastically to become genuine title contenders.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

An early Pedro goal set Chelsea on their way against their neighbors in west London, while Ruben Loftus-Cheek struck late on to seal the 2-0 win after Fulham had fought their way back into the game.

Speaking after the game Sarri acknowledged that Chelsea weren’t at their best and his players were a little nervous after their 3-1 defeat at Tottenham Hotspur last weekend.

“I think that today it was really very important to get a result,” Sarri said. “We started very well, then after the 1-0 I think the players on the pitch had a very good level of application, attention but without trying to kill the match. We needed to kill the match before. I think today we were a little bit tense. Of course it wasn’t easy, the days after Tottenham for me and the players. We have talked too much about that match. We lost a match after three-and-a-half months. It can happen. Today it was important to react.”

Ahead of their massive clash with Manchester City at Stamford Bridge next Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET online via NBCSports.com) one of the main areas Sarri has talked about is improving his central midfield duo of Jorginho and N'Golo Kante.

The latter won the ball and set up Pedro for Chelsea’s opener and had a superb game overall against Fulham. After Sarri recently criticized Kante as he’s played him out of position in a more attacking central midfield role rather than as a holder, he praised the French star for his display on Sunday. But once again he said he must improve tactically.

“I think he played very well, he defended very well,” Sarri said. “He needs to improve a little more from the tactical point of view but it is natural. In the national team he usually plays with two midfielders. In the last season sometimes with two players, sometimes with three midfielders but in the central position. I think it is normal that he needs to improve.”

Although Sarri admitted Kante was better at getting in and around Jorginho — the man who has replaced him in the lone holding position in Chelsea’s 4-3-3 formation — on Sunday, he reaffirmed his belief that Kante still needs to work hard to make the partnership work.

“Today was better, because when the ball was on the other side of the pitch I remember only one mistake in the first half,” Sarri explained. “With the ball on the other side he has to stay very close to Jorginho. Otherwise for us it is a big problem because Jorginho is able to cut passes to the opponents but he is not really very good in the defensive phase with open spaces. We need Kante very close to him.”

Chelsea remain seven points off leaders Manchester City heading into a busy few weeks, but they’re in the top four and responded with a solid enough win against Fulham on Sunday. It was hardly vintage stuff from Sarri’s men in a game they were expected to win, but Kante’s display was a huge positive.

The fact his side were “tense” and “nervous” does suggest that they are still a little fragile despite losing just once so far this season in all competitions. That doesn’t exactly send out a positive message ahead of their biggest test of the season when Man City roll into town next week.

Griezmann could be the key for Barcelona against Betis

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) If Lionel Messi listens to Real Betis and sits out another match, Barcelona will likely have to rely on Antoine Griezmann to finally get some points on the board.

Betis, which visits the Camp Nou on Sunday, responded to a tweet by Barcelona that Messi was back to practicing with the team for the first time since being injured in the preseason by saying: “Don’t rush, Leo. No need for you to force it!”

Barcelona couldn’t make up for Messi’s absence last weekend when its attack was held scoreless in a 1-0 loss at Athletic Bilbao.

That was the first time the two-time defending champions had lost a Spanish league opener in a decade. And after both Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid won, the pressure is on.

Barcelona acquired Griezmann after triggering the 120 million euro ($133 million) buyout clause in his contract with rival Atletico. The France forward was supposed to be the fourth piece to an already world class attack featuring Messi, Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele. But Griezmann may be left with all the scoring responsibility in his competitive home debut.

Messi strained his right calf in the team’s first practice of the season on Aug. 5 and hasn’t played since. Although it is possible he will be back to face Betis, Suarez won’t be after he injured a right leg muscle in the first half at Bilbao. Dembele has also been ruled out for several weeks with a left thigh injury.

Philippe Coutinho, who could have helped out as an attacking player, is no longer with the team after being loaned out to Bayern Munich this week. Malcom, a Brazilian forward who played sparingly for Barcelona last season, was sold to Zenit St. Petersburg.

Griezmann had a lackluster match at Bilbao. His only good scoring chance at San Mames Stadium came in the final minutes with a header.

The Frenchman, however, is used to carrying a team on his back.

Griezmann was a consistent scorer for Atletico, tallying more than 20 goals a season for five consecutive years despite the team often not having another attacking threat to draw away some of the attention of opposing defenses.

The problem at Bilbao, he said, was simply “the ball didn’t go in.”

The other player who could make the most of the opportunity created by the injuries is 21-year-old Carles Perez, a member of Barcelona’s reserve team. He impressed in the preseason, even scoring two goals in a 2-0 win over Japanese club Vissel Kobe, where former Barcelona great Andres Iniesta now plays.

Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde included Perez in Wednesday’s team practice.

Betis was the only team to beat Barcelona at its home stadium last season, outgunning the hosts 4-3.

Since then it has changed coaches, replacing the attack-minded Quique Setien with the more conservative Joan “Rubi” Ferrer, who led Espanyol to a Europa League berth. Barcelona also poached one of its top players, left back Junior Firpo.

Betis lost its Spanish league opener, falling 2-1 to Valladolid at home.

The last time Betis played Barcelona was in Seville in March. Messi scored three goals and received a standing ovation from the Betis fans.

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

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.