Three things we learned: Chelsea v. Fulham

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LONDON — Chelsea beat Fulham 2-0 at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, as Claudio Ranieri‘s return to his former club ended in a defeat.

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Chelsea weren’t at their best but goals in each half from Pedro and Ruben Loftus-Cheek did the damage, as Fulham had their moments but failed to take the few chances which came their way.

Here’s what we learned from Stamford Bridge as Chelsea remain in the top four but are still seven points off leaders Manchester City.


SUBDUED CHELSEA STAY IN TOUCH

Chelsea weren’t at their best on Sunday, but after a week where their progress under Maurizio Sarri was questioned heavily they proved they can grind out wins. The defeat to Tottenham suggested that Chelsea were far from genuine title contenders this season, and Sarri has admitted as much all season long. Yet they remain in the chasing pack behind Man City and Liverpool and finishing in the top four this season would represent a big success. Chelsea started brightly on a Sunday morning at a largely sun-drenched Stamford Bridge but whether it was doubts creeping in about their poor display at Tottenham or the fact they’ve played three games in seven days, Sarri’s men were a little subdued throughout. The likes of Marcos Alonso, Olivier Giroud and Jorginho were poor, while Alvaro Morata missed a glorious chance after jumping off the bench.

They got the job done rather easily despite some pressure from Fulham in the second half and moments of magic from N'Golo Kante and Eden Hazard were enough to get them over the line. But a few defensive lapses could have allowed a more clinical side than Fulham to score and there are still plenty of ways the Blues can improve. All in all, a pretty routine day at the office for Chelsea who remain among the PL frontrunners but there are enough cracks appearing to suggest their showdown with Manchester City next Saturday will be a lot tougher than many believed it would be a few weeks ago.


UNIQUE KANTE SILENCES DOUBTERS

After Chelsea’s defeat at Tottenham last weekend, plenty of the talk surrounding their poor performance was centered on how their central midfield tandem of Jorginho and N’Golo Kante just wasn’t working out. Kante is being played in a new role by Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri who said that he needs to improve many aspects of his game. While Jorginho, the man Sarri brought with him from Napoli in the summer for $72 million, is no doubt the fulcrum of Chelsea’s entire team and is a guaranteed starter in Kante’s old role. Instead of playing Kante alongside Jorginho in a holding role, Sarri plays him just ahead of Chelsea’s true holder and it is probably the best place for the man who won the World Cup with France this summer. We are talking about a player who won the Premier League in two of the past three seasons, was the PFA Player of the Year in 2016-17 and is perhaps the most lauded defensive midfielder in recent history. The fact he’s been forced to change his role proves

Chelsea’s first goal summed up all that is exceptional with the former Leicester City midfielder. He anticipated where the pass was going, snuck in to win the tackle and then drove forward before setting up Pedro to score. That is exactly why Sarri is using Kante in this position. He is using Kante as the trigger for the entire team to press higher up the pitch and force the issue. It may take some time for Kante to impact games in his new role as he did in his old role, but as long as Sarri is in charge at Chelsea he will not return to a holding role. With his display against Fulham, Kante silenced those who seem to be doubting his versatility.


FULHAM’S DEFENSIVE ISSUES IMPROVING

Fulham are the only team in England’s four professional leagues to not keep a clean sheet this season. And that right there is why they sit bottom of the Premier League table. But under Claudio Ranieri things are already improving if you analyze their narrow 3-2 win against Southampton last to this narrow defeat at Chelsea. For much of his return to Stamford Bridge Ranieri barked out orders to his team and urged them to stay in their shape and not be too eager to engage Chelsea’s players when they had the ball. It worked, to a degree, but it is clear the Italian tactician still has plenty of work to do to drill his team into the strong defensive unit he hopes they can become. Wherever he has gone he’s stuck to his solid 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 system and prides himself on being hard to beat. It will be hard for him to mold Fulham into that kind of team.

Fulham’s sloppy passing when they did win the ball back will concern him, especially in the first half, but their play with the ball and the attacks they launched at Chelsea suggest they will create chances against any team in the league. Calum Chambers twice forced Kepa into fine stops in the second half after Ranieri tweaked his personnel and tactics with Aboubakar Kamara and Floyd Ayite providing more power and pace down the flanks after coming on at half time. This will take time for Ranieri to turn around, as he told Pro Soccer Talk, but a few weeks into the job you can see Fulham are more organized defensively and have a gameplan to launch counters. Still, the 35 goals they’ve conceded in their first 14 games of this season is a club-record high for a top-flight season and the Cottagers improving defensively is the main reason Ranieri was brought in. The result at Chelsea won’t please him but the performance will give him hope.

Just how wrong? Revisiting Premier League predictions

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Own it.

That’s how I look at Premier League predictions. When you’re right, be happy about your good fortune. When you’re wrong, raise your hand.

But there’s another level to it: Why was I right or wrong? Did a team let me down, or did I vastly overrate/underrate their potential?

[ MORE: Players to watch at U-20 World Cup ]

Twenty months ago I pegged Burnley to get relegated with an almost record-low amount of points. The Clarets qualified for the Europa League, and I ate my words (even if Sean Dyche‘s men seemingly out-performed every metric on Earth in spite of stats, like some old man claiming Man City wins because of “better chemistry, not talent”).

Cardiff City
Predicted finish: 20
Actual finish: 18

How wrong was I? Not. As much credit as the Bluebirds got for grinding every week, and as much of a difference as the late Emiliano Sala could’ve been to their fortunes, they completed passes at an almost absurdly-bad 63.9 percent rate while having just 39.1 percent of the ball. It was bad.

Huddersfield Town
Predicted finish: 19
Actual finish: 20

How wrong was I? Not. Huddersfield Town managed a league-worst .4 attempts per game from inside the six-yard box, and were one of only five teams to attempt less than six shots per game from inside the 18.

Watford
Predicted finish: 18
Actual finish: 11

How wrong was I? Pretty wrong. Javi Gracia‘s men were strong against bad teams — for the most part — but never sprung another real upset after beating Spurs to go 4-0 early in the season. Record against the Top Six? 1W-0D-11L.

Bournemouth
Predicted finish: 17
Actual finish: 14

How wrong was I? Eh. The Cherries were never really in trouble thanks to a 6-2-2 start, but man did they ride their luck.

Burnley
Predicted finish: 16
Actual finish: 15

How wrong was I? I’ve learned my lesson. Regardless of how much talent appears to be on a Sean Dyche roster, he’s a rich man’s Tony Pulis and should not be doubted.

The face Sean Dyche makes before he fist fights an entire village. Terrifying. (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

Southampton
Predicted finish: 15
Actual finish: 16

How wrong was I? With respect to Mark Hughes, I thought Saints’ season would come down to when he was sacked and who they identified to replace him. Ralph Hasenhuttl‘s in a good place.

Brighton and Hove Albion
Predicted finish: 14
Actual finish: 17

How wrong was I? A bit wrong, and I pretty much blame Pascal Gross, who back slid from 7 goals and 8 assists in his Premier League debut to just three and three in Year No. 2. The Seagulls didn’t score a single goal from outside the 18.

Wolves
Predicted finish: 13
Actual finish: 7

How wrong was I? It’s not simply about buying players — see: Fulham — but about acquiring hungry players. Raul Jimenez, Diogo Jota, and several others had points to prove, and Jimenez especially made it well.

Newcastle United
Predicted finish: 12
Actual finish: 13

How wrong was I? To be honest, this went about as I expected given the brutal fixture list to start the season. Had I known Miguel Almiron would’ve transitioned so nicely from MLS to the PL, I might’ve had them 10th.

 (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Fulham
Predicted finish: 11
Actual finish: 19

How wrong was I? Very, but to my defense so were most people. On paper, the Cottagers improved more than even Wolves.

Crystal Palace
Predicted finish: 10
Actual finish: 12

How wrong was I? The stats kinda back me up, and it may be worth noting for next season that the Palace’s results didn’t match its performances. Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Luka Milivojevic, and Wilfried Zaha gave them difference makers in all thirds of the field, and it’s surprising they didn’t push a bit higher on the table.

Leicester City
Predicted finish: 9
Actual finish: 9

How wrong was I? Not. The Foxes were pretty infuriating all year. Maybe Brendan Rodgers‘ ego and power will match the player power that’s run the club since they won the title. That said, the inconsistency and tumult shouldn’t be a surprise in a season the club had to deal with its owner dying on a match day.

West Ham United
Predicted finish: 8
Actual finish: 10

How wrong was I? Not really. I thought it would take Manuel Pellegrini some time to put his men together, but I didn’t predict the Irons would get a total of 37 appearances from Andriy Yarmolenko, Jack Wilshere, Manuel Lanzini, and Carlos Sanchez.

Everton
Predicted finish: 7
Actual finish: 8

How wrong was I? It took Marco Silva longer than expected to get his men humming, but think of this: If Jordan Pickford doesn’t give Divock Origi a derby winner, Everton is going to Europe. I know, I know… chaos theory. But still.

Richarlison (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

Tottenham Hotspur
Predicted finish: 6
Actual finish: 4

How wrong was I? Like many, I was stunned that Spurs didn’t spend this summer and thought injuries would hurt them. They did, but only to the extent that Tottenham wasn’t able to sustain a title challenge. Spurs rarely gave the ball away, and the only teams that averaged fewer “times dispossessed” than Tottenham’s 9.2 per 90 were teams that never had the ball: Brighton, Cardiff, and Burnley.

Arsenal
Predicted finish: 5
Actual finish: 5

How wrong was I? Spot-on. It was going to take time for the Gunners to come together following a first managerial change in ages, but Arsenal had the offense to challenge for the Top Four. Surprisingly for Arsenal, they averaged just eight dribbles per game, 12th in the PL. Unai Emery had them more cautious than usual.

Chelsea
Predicted finish: 4
Actual finish: 3

How wrong was I? Not. Maurizio Sarri is not for everyone, but he knows how to get results. Granted Gonzalo Higuain was his guy, but he did it without a top striker.

Liverpool
Predicted finish: 3
Actual finish: 2

How wrong was I? Well, considering the Reds had one of the best runners-up finishes of all-time, quite wrong. Mostly, I didn’t expect Mohamed Salah to deliver again and he mostly did (save for a late winter slump).

Manchester United
Predicted finish: 2
Actual finish: 6

How wrong was I? Real wrong. Almost as wrong as United looks for canning Jose Mourinho. The manager needed to leave town, but there was a reason he was playing so packed-in. Ask yourself this: If Ed Woodward gave Mourinho the use of Toby Alderweireld, would Spurs and United be flipped?

Manchester City
Predicted finish: 1
Actual finish: 1

How wrong was I? On point. How good was City? For a club that ranked No. 1 in possession, they were only dispossessed 10.3 times per match. That was the 8th fewest total in the league.

Towsend smash v. Man City win Goal of Season (video)

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Even Vincent Kompany‘s thunderbolt couldn’t stop Andros Townsend from winning the Premier League’s Goal of the Season.

The winner was chosen by a public vote combined with a “panel of experts,” according to Crystal Palace’s web site.

[ MORE: Players to watch at U-20 World Cup ]

Townsend walked onto a popped-up headed clearance well outside the 18 and smashed a volley home against Manchester City three days before Christmas.

Palace posted this quote from Townsend, “Everything about the game, the opponent, the strike, it was perfection. I think it was a strike like that needed to beat the champions away from home. I’m thankful it kind of dropped nicely for my left foot, I hit it clean and the rest is history.”

The goals were similar, and Townsend does have a knack for scoring beauties. Perhaps it shows something that beating Man City stands out a bit more to voters and the panel than a defender scoring for the champions. We think Kompany’s was a tiny bit better, but we’ll forgive the voters.

Sky: Chelsea set to appoint Cech as sporting director

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Petr Cech is staying in London.

The longtime Chelsea goalkeeper is set to return to the club as sporting director following Arsenal’s Europa League Final against… well… Chelsea.

Cech, 37, is calling time on his legendary playing career and will not simply be drumming into the sunset.

[ MORE: Man Utd nears $20m signing ]

He’ll return to a club with which he earned 15 trophies including two Champions Leagues. The three-time Best European Goalkeeper also won three trophies with Arsenal.

It would be pretty surprising if Unai Emery selected him over Bernd Leno for the final in Azerbaijan, but Cech is certainly respected worldwide and will be the type of personality to bring some stability to Chelsea.

Will he have to hire a manager, though?

Pulisic “would love to become” like Hazard

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Christian Pulisic has barely spent a couple of days in Chelsea blue, but he’s already got his eyes on one of the club’s icons.

“It is incredible to see what Eden can do,” said Pulisic in an interview with BBC Sport. “He is a guy to look up to and what I would love to become. It is definitely a goal. Any player would be dumb not to want to be in the same team as him.”

[ MORE: Players to watch at U-20 World Cup ]

Pulisic may not get that chance, with Hazard expected by many to join Real Madrid this summer, but he will become the highest profile American in the Premier League when next season begins in August.

The BBC asked the 20-year-old USMNT star about being the flag bearer for American soccer, the golden boy for a nation of young players.

“I don’t want to be looked at as someone who is the youngest to do this or that. I just want to be an established player and someone people respect, who is successful in this league.”

“It is completely new to me and something not a lot of American players have experienced. It is a blessing to be in this position, so I can inspire American kids, to show them we can do it too.”

Pulisic says he’s confident Chelsea can quickly close the gap on Liverpool and Manchester City.