Man City admit title race wide-open after Chelsea defeat

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LONDON — Manchester City and Pep Guardiola have admitted that the Premier League title race has been blow wide-open after their defeat at Chelsea on Saturday.

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Speaking after the 2-0 defeat, their first of the season, Guardiola lauded the “incredible” display of his team and although he admitted that he would love to have had Benjamin Mendy, Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero fit, he believes his team played extremely well and stuck to their gameplan throughout.

They did, but Chelsea found a way to beat them through N'Golo Kante finishing off a counter in the first half and David Luiz flicking home a header late on. Saturday marked just the fourth time in the past two seasons that City have failed to score in a game, while they also had less shots on target than an opponent for the first time this season.

With Liverpool now top of the league, City sit in second and have the likes of Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea breathing down their necks. Are Liverpool now the title favorites?

“Because they are one point in front? Yesterday we were the favorites but it changed. Why?” Guardiola laughed. “Yesterday we were the favorites and unbeaten. I knew from the beginning. I didn’t tell you in the media but I told my players ‘it will be tougher, that’s normal.’ We are in a similar level to last season. We have four or five points less but our level is quite similar. Our opponents are stronger. The teams want to compete. They want to try. That is normal. We are in December.”

“If you tell me Liverpool can win the Premier League I would say yes. If you tell me right now in the position Tottenham, Arsenal or Chelsea can win the Premier League I would say yes. Everybody can win the Premier League. The people judge what happened last season and last season, I’m sorry, we were the best. We did it so far? Yeah. That is my feeling. But of course when we lose, I am sitting here and I am trying to tell you what I saw. And what I saw, it was quite good we we have done today.”

Chelsea’s manager admitted that his side were a little lucky to be level after a slow start, but he was pleased with the determination and aggression of his players who were filled with confidence after Kante’s opener right on half time.

That said, Chelsea’s manager doesn’t believe they can challenge for the title this season and pointed to a lack of motivation in the smaller games

“As I’ve said always, I think the gap is impossible to cover only in one season,” Sarri said. “You can play one match of course but in a competition of 10 months it is very difficult to cover the gap. They are, at the moment, the best team in Europe. We won today but we have to say we were a bit lucky in the first 25 minutes because they could score. A little bit lucky in the first half and a very good second half. I think we have a team with some difficulties to be motivated. In this kind of match it is very easy to have great motivation, the right level of aggression. But then during the season you have to also play against the small teams. The next match we have to go to Brighton. At Brighton there will be three points on the pitch, like today. We need continuity in motivation, determination. Otherwise we can win this kind of match and then we can lose points in other matches.”

Even though Guardiola beamed that he was happy with City’s play and said that Chelsea “beat us on one counter attack and one set piece” it was clear City missed key players and lacked a cutting edge after their early flurry of chances. Before this defeat they had trailed just 12 minutes all season long. Guardiola now needs a response.

“The first eight, 10 minutes of the second half they [Chelsea] were better than us, but after that and in the first half we were fantastic. It’s a joy for me as a manager to watch my players,” Guardiola said. “We stayed high, regained a lot of balls, attacked and created enough chances to score one or two in the first half, unfortunately it didn’t happen. But that is a good lesson. That is the level of the Champions League. People say Manchester City is favourite for the Champions League but this is the [level of the] Champions League – they [Chelsea] had one chance and scored one goal. The opponents are so good, so clever. That is what’s going to happen in the future in the bigger stages.”

City’s manager revealed that playing with no central striker was a plan which didn’t quite work as Chelsea played slightly deeper than normal and that could give other teams a blueprint to follow. Guardiola also joked about Sarri also playing with a false nine with the superb Eden Hazard supported by workhorse Pedro and Willian.

“We wanted to find some space in the middle for a one against one. Gabriel [Jesus] is more a guy in the box. I knew they would stay high in the press. In the end they didn’t make a high press. They waited a little bit lower. I didn’t expect that,” Guardiola said. “We needed a guy we could find like Riyad or especially Raheem, make an action one-on-one against David Luiz and the other ones, that was our idea. That is why we decided to play today with Raheem more in central than wider… Yesterday I called Maurizio, we decided to play in the same way! It wasn’t a surprise. Against Tottenham for 15-20 minutes Hazard played like a striker. He can play there. I think with Hazard, Pedro and Willian closed the sides better than Hazard. Hazard is an incredible talent but the effort to work backwards, Pedro and Willian are exceptional in that way.”

Man City were far from exceptional on Saturday and their first defeat of the season has given the other contenders hope they won’t canter to another title this season.

The race is on.

Messi finishes season leading La Liga in goals, assists, and more

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Lionel Messi turns 32 this summer, and after more than a dozen years of first team soccer, playing more than 50 games a season, the old man’s still got it.

The Argentine star, playing his first season in almost a decade without direct competition from Cristiano Ronaldo, scored twice as Barcelona tied Eibar, 2-2. The two goals gave him 34 for the season, by far the most by any player in the league, and his 50th in all competitions.

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Messi also led La Liga this season with 13 assists, 136 shots, 85 shots on target and 70 through balls. In terms of successful dribbles, Messi’s 132 fell seven short of Celta Vigo’s Sofiane Boufal.

Messi’s 34 goals gave him his sixth Pichichi, the trophy given to the league’s leading scorer. Messi is now tied with legendary Telmo Zarra for the all-time record of most Pichichi’s, and Messi is now three ahead of Ronaldo.

As if Messi wasn’t already a legendary player, the man seems to be showing no signs of slowing down. It may have helped that he skipped matches with Argentina after the 2018 World Cup this past fall, keeping him fresh for Barcelona. Even so, the man looks as good, if not better, with age.

Messi already holds the record for most goals in league history, and at this rate, he’ll set it to a level that will be almost impossible to reach. While he’s going to be remembered for his incredible control on the ball, it doesn’t hurt that he’s been incredibly productive during his career, including in 2018-2019. Barcelona won the league title with ease and the club made the UEFA Champions League semifinal. If for some better defending, Messi could be contesting for another Champions League title.

Nani scores twice as Orlando City thrashes FC Cincinnati

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Nani may not be the star he once was while he played for Manchester United, but he’s still making a powerful impact in MLS.

The Portuguese international scored his sixth and seventh goals of the season as Orlando City ran circles expansion side FC Cincinnati, winning 5-1. Along with Nani, Tesho Akindele scored a brace and Dom Dwyer came off the bench and scored a header in the win.

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Aside from having a chance to record a big win over a struggling side, Orlando City may have been ultra motivated on Sunday. Orlando City manager James O’Connor has history with FC Cincinnati from his time at Louisville City, with intense rivalry matches taking place as well as arguments between O’Connor and former FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch on the sidelines.

FC Cincinnati actually went up early with a Darren Mattocks finish past Brian Rowe, but it didn’t take long for Orlando City to respond. Akindele fired home from 20-yards out in the 37th minute to make it 1-1. Early in the second half, Nani scored on a penalty kick rebound to make it 2-1 to the hosts, and then he added a second off a cross from the right to blast the game wide open.

With the win, Orlando City moved just one point outside of a playoff place, while Cincinnati remains in the basement of the Eastern Conference. However, Orlando City has a difficult road ahead, with matches against the LA Galaxy, Montreal Impact and D.C. United to come.

Serie A: Napoli rout Inter, leaving UCL race wide open heading into final week

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The race for the third and four places in Serie A, and with it, a berth in the UEFA Champions League next season, remain open heading into the final week of the season, thanks to a stellar performance from Napoli.

Playing at home in the Stadio San Paolo, Napoli thrashed Inter Milan, 4-1, to keep Inter in fourth place in the table on 66 points. That’s just one point ahead of AC Milan in fifth place, which jumped up after a 2-0 win over Frosinone, and three points ahead of AS Roma, which succumbed to a scoreless draw with Sassuolo this weekend. Atalanta meanwhile came ten minutes from beating Juventus in Turin, and even with a point in a 1-1 draw, Atalanta is still only in third place by 66 points.

[READ: Bayern Munich still too good for the rest this season]

Piotr Zielinski made a statement with a 30-yard blast past Samir Handanovic in the 16th minute to put Napoli up 1-0 and then Dries Mertens and a pair of goals from Fabian Ruiz gave the Neapolitans a massive lead, while leaving Inter in a precarious position. Mauro Icardi scored late to give Inter a small reprieve, but the defeat was set and it leaves Inter essentially needing to win in the final week of the season to secure a place in the Champions League next year.

Elsewhere, Josip Ilicic scored his 12th league goal of the season as Atalanta took Juventus down to the wire in Juve’s final home match of the season. Juventus fans serenaded Andrea Barzagli, playing his final game for the Bianconeri, and even had a message of support for Daniele De Rossi.

Gianluigi Buffon was even in attendance.

Also in action in Serie A, Parma beat Fiorentina, 1-0 and Empoli defeated Torino, 4-1.

Report: Former Chelsea great Clarke set to be new Scotland manager

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The Scotland FA is set to appoint a former Chelsea star as its new men’s national team manager.

Former Chelsea midfielder, and West Bromwich Albion and Reading manager Steve Clarke is reportedly in talks with the Scotland FA to take over the national team. Clarke has a difficult job ahead, with Scotland already having lost, 3-0, at Kazakhstan in UEFA Euro 2020 qualifying.

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Although Scotland finished top of their group in Level C of the UEFA Nations League and earned promotion to League B, the team’s play was very up and down under Alex McLeish, back in the job after a one-year spell in 2017. McLeish eventually lost the federation’s support after the 3-0 defeat at Kazakhstan, ranked then 117th in the world, made Scotland look like Europe’s whipping boy. Though Scotland saved some face with a 2-0 win over San Marino, the damage was done.

Clarke, after disappointing tenures at West Bromwich and Reading in his first full managerial roles, has since found success in Scotland. He’s led Kilmarnock this season to third place in the table and a spot in the Europa League, an impressive feat considering the club’s budget is dwarfed by Celtic and Rangers. Aberdeen have impressed, while both Hibernian and Hearts of Midlothain have also recently spent big on new signings, yet Kilmarnock finished above them this season.

Clarke, who only played a half dozen times for Scotland during his playing career, will now have to galvanize the squad ahead of two crucial qualifications in June and quickly imprint his tactical ideas and plan in a short amount of time. During his time at Chelsea, Clarke won the FA Cup, League Cup, and UEFA Cup Winners Cup between 1987 and 1998. He was also assistant coach under Jose Mourinho and played a key role in some of their most successful seasons.