Three things we learned: Chelsea v. Fulham

Leave a comment

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

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

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.

Infantino says closing stadiums only a short-term coronavirus solution

Getty Images
Leave a comment

FIFA president Gianni Infantino has stated that he does not support playing closed-door games as a long-term solution to avoiding the threat of coronavirus.

Serie A will play games behind closed doors for the second straight weekend thanks to the rapid spread of the disease that has infected over 800 people in Italy. Most notably, the game between title contenders Inter and Juventus will be played in front of an empty Allianz Stadium in Turin.

“I don’t think it is sustainable in the long term to play behind closed doors,” Infantino said before a meeting in Northern Ireland. “Every competition organizer ultimately has to decide what is best for him. Obviously, on the short term it can be a solution [to play without fans] in order to move on. But you cannot imagine a few months of a competition being played, several matches being played, behind closed doors.”

Infantino went on to say he “wouldn’t exclude anything” when asked about possible solutions for international fixtures coming up in March, but admitted “I hope we will never have to get into this direction. We cannot underestimate and say it’s nothing but we don’t have to overreact and panic.”

Meanwhile, English tabloids reported Friday that the Premier League could close up shop early, costing Liverpool its league title should it take place before Liverpool is mathematically crowned champions. However, the Liverpool Echo reported that the Premier League is still considering all possibilities as solutions for coronavirus prevention and that scenarios like that are at this point considered “still at a hypothetical stage.”

Some Premier League clubs confirmed they are banning handshakes around the training ground, while others have told players to tone down fan interaction for the time being. Other leagues around Europe have taken more drastic measures, such as the Swiss league which has completely shut down until at least mid-March on instruction from the government.

French goalkeeper throws ball into own net

Getty Images
Leave a comment

There’s own-goals, and then there’s own-goals. French goalkeeper Brice Maubleu scored an own-goal.

The Grenoble goalkeeper, taking on fellow Ligue 2 side Caen on Friday, threw the ball into his own net in the 18th minute to give the hosts a 2-0 lead they would not relinquish.

It appeared that Maubleu was attempting to distribute the ball to one of his defenders only to pull back at the last minute, and upon his attempt to halt the throw, he instead tossed it back towards his own net. The 30-year-old captain attempted to scramble back and stop the ball, and he very well may have, but the referee gave the goal and replays were inconclusive.

You can watch video of the brutal own-goal here.

Maubleu confirmed that was his intention after the fact. “There are dark evenings and this is one of them,” the Grenoble captain said after the match. “On the goal, I wanted to quickly set Jerome (Mombris) away, but I saw that he was not looking at me so I revised my decision and then the ball left my hands”

Maubleu recalled when French goalkeeper Steve Mandanda did something similar while playing for Marseille in 2012, throwing the ball right to an opposition attacker who easily buried the ball into the empty net. “This happens sometimes and people think that it can’t possibly happen to others. In the end, I play the ball thinking that all was still ok but apparently the ball had already gone in,” Maubleu said.

“I am disappointed because it gave our opponent a two-goal lead. I will have to quickly get back working and move on, because it will likely do the rounds on social media. The goalkeeper position is exposed and there are risks. After that, I was back in my match and made saves even though those won’t be remembered.”

The 30-year-old Maubleu has played for just Tours FC and Grenoble in his career, making two Ligue 1 appearances in 2009 before spending the rest of his time in Ligue 2.

Arsenal posts loss as Champions League absence felt

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Arsenal announced Friday a loss of £27.1 million ($34.6 million) for the most recent fiscal year, citing the combination of high player wages and a lengthy absence from the UEFA Champions League competition as the main contributing factor for the poor financial performance.

The loss is the club’s first since 2002, according to Chairman Sir Chips Keswick.

Arsenal Holdings plc released the after tax total for the fiscal year ending May 31 2019, down from a $72.1 million profit the previous year. Commercial revenues were up significantly, increasing profits from $495.6 million to $504 million. Still, operating profits rocketed to $295.8 million thanks to what the club called “continued investments in player wages.”

“Our player trading profit for this financial year was limited and this combined with a second consecutive season of Europa League football has meant the club recorded its first overall loss since 2002,” Keswick said in a club statement. “For 2019-20 we will see increased commercial revenues from Adidas and our renewed deal with Emirates, but another season outside the Champions League will continue to apply pressure to our financial results.”

The Gunners were shockingly eliminated from the Europa League on Thursday at the hands of Olympiakos in extra-time, meaning the only way they end the Champions League drought will be to charge into the Premier League top four. Currently Arsenal sits ninth in the table, six points off fourth-placed Chelsea.

Back in July, Arsenal director Josh Kroenke – son of owner Stan Kroenke – warned that the club “had a Champions League wage bill on a Europa League budget.”

3 things to know about Inter Miami and Nashville S.C.

Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Major League Soccer gets under way this weekend, and for those fans who would like to get a better feel for the league as a whole, a good place to start is the two new clubs.

[ MORE: MLS Week 1 preview ]

Inter Miami and Nashville S.C. will both get a difficult welcome to the U.S. top flight this weekend, with Nashville hosting Atlanta United on Saturday while Miami travels to LAFC on Sunday. Neither clubs are expected to be immediate playoff contenders, but as both their debut opponents will tell them, there doesn’t always have to be a learning curve for new introductions.

[ MORE: 2020 MLS season predictions ]

So, with that in mind, let’s learn more about the two expansion clubs that take the MLS total to 26.

INTER MIAMI

Seven years after David Beckham retired from Major League Soccer franchise and began pursuit of club ownership, his team finally takes the field. It has been a brutally long journey for the South Florida side, but the beginning is finally here. The roster looks solid and the coaching staff is well built, so don’t be surprised if they put up a fight in the playoff race.

1. The team is stocked with MLS veterans

Inter Miami had a clear strategy while building its initial squad – hoard experience. The team acquired USMNT midfielders Lee Nguyen and Wil Trapp, former champions AJ DeLaGarza and Alvas Powell, longtime NYRB goalkeeper Luis Robles, journeyman Juan Agudelo, and former NYCFC defender Ben Sweat. The players may or may not click together, but if one thing is for certain with Inter Miami, the club doesn’t feel as brand new when looking at the roster.

2. Matias Pellegrini will lead the way

While the squad is loaded with domestic experience, the club looked abroad for its first two Designated Players. 26-year-old Mexican international Rodolfo Pizarro joined from Monterrey for a hefty fee, and he will be critically important moving forward in midfield. Young striker Julian Carranza is injured for the first month but will be a major factor up front as well. However, 19-year-old Matias Pellegrini will likely be the club’s most important player. The Argentine is an electric player, and how he integrates with a squad full of veterans will make Inter Miami an intriguing watch early in the campaign; if he doesn’t hit the ground running, the Inter Miami attack will sputter.

3. Depth is a strength

This team may need time to gel, but it is a well-constructed roster that is built to weather a storm. The only position that looks thin is center-back where Powell and Nicolas Figal are backed up by just inexperienced Grant Lillard, 19-year-old Christian Makoun, and 20-year-old Andres Reyes. Everywhere else is covered by experience. DeLaGarza provides excellent cover for Sweat and recent college graduate Dylan Nealis. Nguyen may not be an everyday starter any more but he is as good as bench options come. Robbie Robinson will likely begin the season up front but eventually take a back seat to Carranza and be a solid option off the bench, while Jerome Kiesewetter brings European experience as well.

NASHVILLE S.C.

Making less of a splash than Inter Miami is new Western Conference members Nashville S.C. Unlike Inter Miami, Nashville isn’t starting completely from scratch, having two years in USL under their belt. Still, there are plenty of questions to be asked about how Nashville can compete on a consistent basis this season.

1. This team is strong defensively, and not so much up front

This squad is clearly built for one thing – defensive strength. Nashville brought in USMNT veteran Walker Zimmerman from LAFC who will be partnered with 26-year-old former LA Galaxy defender Dave Romney. Dax McCarty provides good cover in midfield, and while Daniel Lovitz can get forward, the full-back group doesn’t exactly scream “attack attack attack.”

On that sense, going forward may be an issue. Nashville scored nine goals in preseason, but playing against other sides’ backups for much of the time it’s hard not to take that with a grain of salt. Dominique Badji’s MLS numbers with Colorado and FC Dallas are mediocre at best and Hany Mukhtar’s production abroad doesn’t jump off the page either. David Accam can create for himself but only has 17 assists in 124 career MLS appearances, so while goalscoring can be there, the creativity is lacking greatly. Abu Danladi hasn’t quite lived up to his expectations thus far and will be hoping a change of scenery can unlock a new level, but it’s hard to see the season-long consistency there.

2. The roster is full of scrappy players

A number of guys on the fringe of the Nashville S.C. roster may actually end up contributing more than expected. Randall Leal is an exciting player who could find himself a fan favorite with his swashbuckling style of play. With the expected inconsistency up front, Daniel Rios could get a look if he can translate his USL goalscoring numbers (40 goals in 62 games) to the MLS level – obviously a major question, but also one deserving the time of day. McCarty is a well-liked player who puts in a shift in midfield, and his partner Anibal Godoy plays the crunching style expected of a Central American defensive midfielder. This team will be a grind to break down.

3. Nashville probably needs to look for a few more pieces

With only Mukhtar signed on as a Designated Player, Nashville is probably a few more key contributors away from a playoff spot. Should they hold down a respectable start to the campaign, a summer signing could push this team into contention, but as it stands the cohesion brought on by two years in USL likely won’t be enough to see them keep pace with the stronger teams in the West. With an opening trio of games against Atlanta United, Portland, and Toronto FC, it will be difficult for the new boys to hit the ground running this season, and at times it could feel like a slog.