Tag Archives: Chelsea

Stamford Bridge

Build for the future – give the kids a chance

There is something special about giving your one of own a chance. No matter all the cash being splashed about in football’s modern era, a homegrown young player breaking through will always mean much more to the diehard supporter.

This season has seen plenty of academy graduates being given opportunities to shine. At Chelsea, manager Frank Lampard has been forced into calling on the youthful talent at his disposal due to the club’s transfer ban.

The Lampard effect

For many years, Chelsea have had a reputation for nurturing and developing young players who then never got the chance to become established in their first team squad.

Until recently, the last one to actually do so was John Terry. Back in 2017, the Blues skipper said: “We’ve got so many [talented young players] at Chelsea who are ready. Monaco have a couple and everybody’s saying how good they are – believe me, we’ve got better players at Chelsea.”

Finally, Chelsea have given those youngsters a chance, and to good effect. The team currently sit in fifth place in the Premier League, two points off last season’s winners Manchester City. In many instances when the London club have struggled, it’s been the older, wiser heads that have been the problem.

When Chelsea lost two games on the bounce at home to Valencia and then Liverpool, Lampard locked his players in the dressing room and blasted his experienced players. He later said: “Without a doubt, there’s a responsibility on senior players to set the tone. The young players will look up to them and follow their lead, hopefully in the right way.”

Someone believed in them and thought ‘let’s give them a chance, what have we got to lose?’

During this campaign, Lampard has integrated six former academy players, including three who had limited game time last season under former boss Maurizio Sarri – Andreas Christensen, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

Already this season the Blues legend has given debuts to Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham, Reece James and Fikayo Tomori with Christensen and Hudson-Odoi also featuring, with a combined total of 3,370 minutes.

Another reason Lampard should be proud is that since he took over, three of those players have been called up by their national teams.

It might be too early to say that a majority of the young prospects who have come through at the Bridge this season are future stars of the international game, but they have made a real impact. Abraham has repaid Lampard’s trust by scoring nine times in 11 games for Chelsea.


Ole’s youthful plan

There is, however, a contrasting situation at Manchester United, where Ole Gunnar Solskjær has, like Lampard but for different reasons, had to lean on academy-produced talent in the early months of the season.

There has been widespread criticism of a transfer policy which is perceived to have left a lack of leadership and experience at Old Trafford, especially in the front line after Romleu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez were shipped to Italy.

This doesn’t meaning the younger players are failing, although they have so far been off the standards that United set themselves, having gone into the international break sitting 12th in the table. The youngsters have done pretty well, but their lack of experience, combined with some ineffectual displays from established stars, is hindering hopes of a Solskjær-led revival.

Playing consistently from the age of 19-22 really does put you above the rest

Before playing Leicester City, who United beat 1-0 courtesy of academy graduate Marcus Rashford scoring from the spot, Solskjær echoed the club’s message to the younger members of the league’s second-youngest squad:

“It’s a good test, it’s a great test and a great challenge for our players who want to push on. A few players are out, so the others can step up. Here’s your chance. That’s the thing here. The young kids do get chances and when they take them, it can be life-changing.”

That being said, the likes of Daniel James, who joined from Swansea City for £15m in the summer, have dovetailed nicely with Rashford, who has already played 180 times despite only turning 22 at the end of the month.

Even though there has been very little to celebrate so far this season, Red Devils supporters can at least feel happier seeing Axel Tuanzebe and Mason Greenwood turning out impressive performances despite this being what is perceived as one of the worst United sides in 20 years.

The overall benefit

For Rashford, this sort of exposure has seen him be ever-present in England manager Gareth Southgate’s plans and play at the World Cup, European Championship and in the semi-finals of the Uefa Nations League.

Ultimately, if young players are given the chance, alongside more experienced ones, to play week in week out, it really does make a difference. Playing consistently from the age of 19-22 really does put you above the rest.

With Lampard’s project in full swing, it would be a real shame – when they transfer ban ends – if Chelsea were to undo all of the hard work he has by reverting to a policy of big money signings. They have shown that using younger players alongside an experienced core can make them competitive.

Southgate must be delighted as many of the newer faces at Chelsea are English and fit his current desire for young talent ready to prove a point.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter what happens in the league if you give youth a chance. In this high pressure and constantly demanding game, diamonds will appear from the rough of indifferent form and become players to lead their teams forward in years to come.

At Chelsea it’s almost puzzling to understand why it has taken so long for a project so ambitious but forward-thinking to come to the fore. A look at that Blues squad confirms there are many young players who will potentially star at the highest level for a decade or more, and all because someone believed in them and thought ‘let’s give them a chance, what have we got to lose?’.

Feature image of Stamford Bridge courtesy of Ungry Young Man via Flickr Creative Commons licence CC BY 2.0

Chelsea prove the Europa League has the power to thrill

Rarely has a routine 3-1 win in the Europa League been so dominant, so elegant, so fun.

In an hour and a half on a breezy Thursday night, Chelsea quashed the well-worn adage that Europe’s secondary competition is nothing but a humdrum procession of drabness, and breathed colour into the grey.

It was a performance bearing the stamp of coach Mauricio Sarri, his philosophy embodied and epitomised by one player, Ruben Loftus-Cheek. This was Rolls-Royce football, beauty and brevity at once manifest in a scintillating marriage of flair and steely competence, a rip-roaring exhibition of attacking excellence awash with feints, flicks and nutmegs. This was edge-of-your-seat entertainment.

If BATE Borisov had arrived in London with anything resembling a game plan, it was blown to smithereens within two minutes. Davide Zappacosta’s low centre was met by Loftus-Cheek’s sweeping finish, and so the tone was set for what would become a lesson in humility for the Belarusians.

Loftus-Cheek’s second came moments later, his neat side-footed volley the premature nail in BATE’s proverbial coffin. And while Chelsea often failed to capitalise on their attacking dominance throughout the rest of the first half, this would ultimately prove to be a slow and painful death for Alaksey Baha’s side.

Dominance

Stamford Bridge has witnessed some scintillating football this season

Perhaps the most striking thing about this current Chelsea team is the marked contrast in style since Sarri replaced Antonio Conte.

Where once pragmatism ruled, the Blues’ new no-holds-barred approach is a breath of fresh air around Stamford Bridge. For Chelsea to play with such grace and elegance, with Eden Hazard given a spectator’s role, speaks volumes of the effect Sarri has had on this squad.

Suddenly, all 11 starters seem buoyed by their attacking potential. Cesc Fabregas and Mateo Kovacic, two traditionally deep-lying midfielders, were taking it in turns to drive at BATE’s rearguard. Full-backs Emerson and Zappacosta became auxiliary wingers, allowing Pedro and Willian the freedom to drift into open spaces.

As pronounced as Chelsea’s attacking intent is, there’s always a degree of measure. BATE’s best moments came on the counter, and yet the hosts never seemed outnumbered nor in danger.

Sarri’s side is one as comfortable making a gritty, professional foul as piecing together an intricate attacking sequence. This Chelsea team blends the fun of a cosmopolitan with all the balance and maturity of an aged scotch.

The early lead offered the freedom to experiment in attack. Loftus-Cheek’s two goals were the sharp and sweet appetisers before the long, savoured main course, as each attack brought forth another burst of flavour, every lavish flick and feint a new lesson in flair.

In some ways, the fact that the first-half did not turn into an all-out rout, as it could and possibly should have, made Chelsea’s performance all the more absorbing. There’s a certain mystique to the not-quite perfect.

Hat-trick hero

It didn’t take long for Loftus-Cheek to complete his unlikely hat-trick in the second half, his low, placed finish eluding the dive of Scherbitski in the BATE goal. The 22 year-old himself seemed unsure of how to celebrate the feat, sheepishly raising his arms to the air, as if stunned that it should be he who is Chelsea’s goalscoring hero.

But in a sense, Loftus-Cheek has the potential to be the perfect Sarri player, his movement with and without the ball mesmeric at times. He is a mystery thriller of a midfielder, suddenly driving through the gears when you least expect it, jinking and weaving through defenders as though they were training ground cones.

BATE Borisov failed to contain him, allowing him to dangle his hypnotic pendulum before their eyes. Time and again he evaded their desperate challenges, leaving fluorescent yellow shirts flailing.

Loftus-Cheek has given Sarri plenty to think about

There are few more popular players at Stamford Bridge. His name garnered the biggest cheer as the teams were read out before kick-off. His name was sung more than any other.

With Chelsea’s youth academy producing such fine yields, there seems a desperation among supporters for one to become a mainstay in the first team. Loftus-Cheek possesses all the requisite attributes, and after a successful loan spell at Crystal Palace and the experience of a World Cup, perhaps now is the time for him to stand up and be noticed. 

Simple pleasures

Aleksey Rios’ late goal provided some consolation for the visitors, but in truth it is nothing but a footnote. After two solid, if uninspiring 1-0 victories over PAOK and Vidi respectively in the Europa League prior, this was the game where Sarri’s side truly hit top gear.

In truth, Chelsea are above the Europa League. They should be rubbing shoulders with Europe’s elite, but now find themselves ensnared in what is oft regarded as an intrusion on the weekly equilibrium at professional clubs.

But both they and Arsenal have proved this season that the Europa League boasts qualities the Champions League cannot. There is the opportunity to give playing time to younger or fringe players, for fans to see their side hand out a good spanking, to relax and simply enjoy football, free from the frantic importance of the weekly Premier League fare.

Meanwhile, the likes of Spurs and Man United have toiled in the Champions League, flapping and floundering in a vain attempt to keep their respective heads above water, battling against the humiliation of a potential group-stage exit.

Players like Loftus-Cheek arguably would not have such a chance if Chelsea were in the Champions League. Arsenal’s now 11 match unbeaten run would arguably not be so if they were playing stronger opposition each midweek.

At a time when the Champions League group stage has become increasingly denuded of its allure through predictability and repetition, perhaps we ought to take joy in the simple pleasures its little brother affords.

Photo of Ruben Loftus-Cheek sourced from Wikimedia Commons, and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence 

Premier League preview

Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal are all favourites – but there can only be one crowned champion.

Defending champions Manchester City will look to retain their title. However, the season ahead looks to be more competitive than the previous campaign.

The pressure is on for new managers Unai Emery of Arsenal and Chelsea’s Maurizio Sarri. Both managers are new and will have to adapt to the Premier League

Manchester City

No manager has retained the Premier League title since Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United in 2009.

Pep Guardiola was the first to lead a team to 100 points in an English top-flight season, but retaining the trophy would arguably be every bit as special. “I am read,y” said the Spaniard ahead of the new campaign.

“The fear of losing the games makes me starving and hungry again. I don’t like the feeling of losing games. When you lose, you feel guilty, you feel bad. Your private life is not good. Your relationship with the players is not good. So that is why to avoid that. Just that simple fear of losing a game makes you hungry.”

Guardiola’s desire to continue winning was showcased in City’s win over Chelsea in the Community Shield. City will want to retain the title, but their supporters – and owners – also crave Champions League success.

“It’s important to be in it every season,” said Guardiola of club football’s biggest prize. “And we are going to try with all our effort to win it. But if you ask me what the most important competition is, it is the Premier League.”

A comfortable win at Arsenal in their first fixture was an excellent start is a great start, but not th one Emery was hoping for at the Emirates.

Manchester United

Manchester United were not able to challenge City in the title race last season despite spending £400m since Jose Mourinho took over. His side were 19 points behind their city rivals and even failed to play entertaining football for the Old Trafford faithful.

Mourinho had said his side face a “difficult season” unless they sign a new defender, but the Red Devils failed to add anyone new to their backline.

Despite their runners-up spot in the league and reaching the FA Cup final, which they lost to Chelsea, United still seem a work in progress and Mourinho appears to have a frosty relationship with some of his players.

Many pundits believe his pre-season negativity can only have a detrimental impact on his squad’s morale, and a failure to make a good start to the season could see the Portuguese considering exit strategies.

Tottenham

Spurs had a positive 17-18 season, finishing third in the league, but have failed to add any new players to the current squad.

Tottenham are the only side in the Premier League history to have not added anyone during the summer window.

However, manager Mauricio Pochettino feels they have, “achieved their objective” and did a “great job” by keeping their best players in the transfer window.

They did attempt to sign Aston Villa midfielder Jack Grealish, but were unable to come up with a deal in time.

Spurs have had top-four finishes for the past three seasons, but delays in the completion of their new stadium could have a negative effect both on and off the pitch.

North London rivals Arsenal were restricted in the transfer market by the cost of their move to the Emirates for several seasons, and some Spurs fans fear the same happening.

Their team got off to a good start with an opening victory 2-1 at Newcastle, but bigger tests await them.

Liverpool

Jurgen Klopp spent over £100m in the transfer window with Alisson, Fabinho, Keita and Shaqiri all added to the Liverpool squad.

Klopp knows the pressure is on to deliver trophies, but said: “We are Liverpool; there is no-one on this planet that expects more of us than we expect of ourselves. I really love how the players have reacted this summer and I cannot praise them enough for the way they have stayed hungry.”

Liverpool had an outstanding run in the Champions League and losing 3-1 in the final to Real Madrid was devastating, however, the football played was certainly memorable.

Klopp added: “The attitude in training and in practice, matches have been outstandingly good, the highest level. And when you consider, as it has been for other clubs also, the build-up has been disrupted by players coming back at different times [after the World Cup], it is even more impressive.”

Liverpool hit four past West Ham in style in their opener and are favourites to win the Premier League according to a Sky Sports online poll.

Alisson is seen as player to end their goalkeeping woes and should create more confidence at the back where Klopp’s teams have been lacking in previous seasons.

Chelsea

New boss Sarri is looking to make his mark in the Premier League by getting Chelsea back into the top four after Antonio Conte’s reign ended in acrimony last season despite the FA Cup win.

Having spent £71.6m on 23-year old goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga from Athletic Bilbao, Sarri has been given the funds to get Chelsea back in the title race.

Their opening win against Huddersfield will build confidence, but they looked well short of Man City’s standards in their Community Shield defeat at Wembley.

Sarri has said simply “My job is to win matches”. But having kept hold of key players such as Eden Hazard and Willian, the Italian will be expected to deliver by Chelsea’s ever-impatient hierarchy.

 Arsenal

New manager Emery began his Arsenal venture with a comprehensive home defeat against defending champions Man City.

He has made it clear what he expects from his current squad: “I want ambition from this team, I want them to be ambitious in every match. I want for 90 minutes in every match for them to be in the game and to be working hard. I want this every day, this is my ambition”.

The Spaniard is under a lot of pressure from fans to perform well following the departure of Arsene Wenger, although the Arsenal board have made it clear, he will be given time.

Arsenal have failed to reach the top-four in the league for the last four seasons. New defensive midfielder Lucas and centre back Sokratis were among the players signed this summer on a fairly conservative budget, with fan favourite Jack Wilshere released and signed by West Ham.

To conclude, the Premier League title race this season could potentially be more competitive and exciting than ever before. Expect Manchester City to become the first team to defend the title since 2009, but also expect their rivals to push them harder, with Liverpool hot on their heels.

Lukaku finally makes it count as Mourinho gets the better of Conte

Much has been made of Romelu Lukaku’s failure to produce against the big sides since he completed his £75 move to Manchester United last summer.

But against former club Chelsea at Old Trafford, the Belgian answered his critics by delivering a match-winning performance – long overdue though it might have been.

Despite the occasional flashes of quality, United’s 2-1 win was an underwhelming affair, lacking the feisty edge that had seemed inevitable after Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte spent the two months leading up to the game engaging in a bitter verbal battle via the media.

In the end we saw no snubbed handshakes, touchline arguments or crunching tackles. It was a good game of football, yes, but it was all a bit sanitised.

And for all the hype of second vs fourth clash in front of 75,000 fans, there was no great atmosphere to speak of either.

A passionate crowd can often inject some much-needed life into a tight game like this one, but whether it was United’s uninspiring form of late or the unavoidable fact that the team from across the city are champions elect, Old Trafford never really got going.

Chelsea dominance

United struggled mightily to get going too, picking up in many aspects from their dismal display Champions League against Sevilla in midweek. Chelsea were utterly dominant in the opening half hour, and Willian’s opener in the 32nd minute was just reward.

After seeing a number of half-chances go to waste, most notably Alvaro Morata striking the crossbar with a snap volley that perhaps a more in-form striker would have put away, Eden Hazard took advantage of some dreadful positioning from Antonio Valencia to slip the Brazilian through to beat David de Gea, who wasn’t his imperious self on the day, at his near post.

‘Despite the two managers playing down any hard feelings, Mourinho will know he got the better of Conte in the all-important second half’

The home support were murmuring with discontent at United’blown outrage once their side went 1-0 down.

Paul Pogba, an excellent player in a poor spell of form, bore the brunt of the home fans disapproval, booed every time he stalled on the ball despite a total lack of support from United’s attackers at times.

This was a worrying sign that the lazy, ignorant media narrative of Pogba as the young, rich black man that cares more about getting his hair cut and dancing on Instagram than he does about football, is starting to permeate even the United fanbase.

There’s no denying the Frenchman has struggled to find the consistent brilliance he displayed in his final season at Juventus. But those journalists and pundits blaming this on his entirely ordinary off-field interests should focus on how Mourinho has so far failed to fit Pogba into his side in a way that plays to his strengths and hides his weaknesses.

At least the ire of their fans seemed to kick-start the players in red, and in the 39th minute United’s expensive attack linked up beautifully, in a sight all too rare, to produce an equaliser.

Alexis Sanchez drilled a ball into the feet of Anthony Martial in the box, and he picked out Lukaku to slide it past his compatriot Thibaut Courtois in goal. It was their only real moment of a terrible half, but a confident striker only needs one chance to score.

And despite the two managers playing down any hard feelings, Mourinho will know he got the better of Conte in the all-important second half.

Resurgent United

After the break, United were every bit as dominant as Chelsea had been early on, creating little more than half chances but completely dominating the game and looking the only side likely to grab all three points.

Sanchez and Lukaku linked up again in spectacular fashion with the game still tied, with the Chilean going on a trademark run before picking out Lukaku, who improvised superbly with a half-bicycle kick that required an excellent stop from Courtois.

‘It was a side of Lukaku’s game rarely seen, but proof that he is a special talent when he is in the mood’

But the game was decided in a tale of two substitutes. Mourinho was first to blink, replacing Martial with Jesse Lingard, who would have felt aggrieved not to have started.

Minutes later, in a puzzling move, Conte withdrew Hazard for Pedro with the game still in the balance. He’d not been at his dazzling best, but his game-changing talent was evident when playing the through ball for Chelsea’s goal, and the Blues missed his quality greatly in the final minutes.

And so it was that Lingard got the winner, and his Black Panther-themed celebration made the back pages. But although he showed guile to escape Andreas Christensen in the box and head accurately into the corner, it was Lukaku’s work that made the goal.

Picking the ball up in an unusual situation for him, out on the right wing with two blue shirts closing down, the 24-year-old froze Antonio Rudiger with a step over and whipped in an excellent cross that allowed Lingard to meet the ball in his stride.

It was a side of Lukaku’s game rarely seen, but proof that he is a special talent when he is in the mood and capable of producing moments that can beat any team, not just the Premier League’s weaker sides.

European ambition

Despite Chelsea’s failure to reproduce the quality they showed in the first half, they had a legitimate gripe over Morata’s disallowed goal in the 86th minute.

It initially looked offside, and there was little protestation from the Chelsea players, but replays showed Victor Lindelof’s outstretched leg was playing the Spaniard onside.

‘Mourinho’s endless struggle to fully win over United’s support will continue in spite of this result’

Chelsea failed to create anything beyond that, despite the hulking Courtois venturing into the opposite box in the dying seconds, and United held on for a morale-boosting win to send them back into second place.

Mourinho and Conte shook hands again, and both now will surely focus their attentions solely on more important things than their mutual antipathy. The Italian now has his work cut out to avoid elimination in Europe by Barcelona, and with the title already out of sight, could find himself moving on just a year after winning the title.

As for Mourinho, his endless struggle to fully win over United’s support will continue in spite of this result, and there are still major questions to be asked over the best fit for both Pogba and his shiny new star Sanchez, who has so far looked mostly out of sync with his new teammates.

But with the Red Devils now heavy favourites to progress into the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time in five years, this win proved that on sheer talent alone, they have the ability to do big things.

Bad blood and bitterness set to fuel United vs. Chelsea

It’s quite a rare occurrence, especially in the context of the modern, politically correct Premier League, that a game between 2nd and 4th in the table is being keenly anticipated for an off-the-field rivalry as opposed to its promise as an actual game of football.

But with Manchester United in the middle of a tepid run of uninspiring results, and Chelsea struggling to recreate the form that saw them run away with the title last season, the fires have instead been stoked in the media rooms, with Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte engaging in a petty and seemingly never-ending war of words in the build up to Sunday’s game.

The feud                                  

Cast your minds all the way back to October 2016, and their first Premier League meeting. Upon his return to Stamford Bridge, Mourinho’s United were demolished 4-0 – with the fiery Conte celebrating even the last goal as if it was a World Cup final. Mourinho took umbrage with what he saw as Conte trying to “humiliate” him, and things have only gone downhill from there.

Mourinho labelled Chelsea a “defensive team” in February 2017, and the following month, after again being bested by Conte in an FA Cup tie at the Bridge, claimed he “will always be number one” at Chelsea due to his trophy-laden spells at the club.

Conte retorted in the summer, telling press he wanted to “avoid a Mourinho season”, referencing Jose’s dismal title defence during his second spell down King’s Road. Then, again, the two clashed in the press in October after Mourinho seemingly referenced Conte “crying about injuries”.

The pair were remarkably well behaved in the lead up and aftermath to Chelsea’s deserved 1-0 victory over United in November, though, and it was seemingly safe to assume that the pair had buried the hatchet and moved past it. That was, until January.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Mourinho took a thinly-veiled dig at Conte for “behaving like a clown on the touchline”, and then even more strikingly, told press “I will never be suspended for match-fixing”, which was assumed to be a direct reference to Conte’s four-month ban served during his time as Juventus manager, for failing to report match-fixing at Siena, a previous club.

Conte hit back by calling Jose “a little man”, and insisting he “will not forget these comments”.

All very petty, but all of the insults and dirty laundry being aired over the past few months has no doubt added greatly to the drama of the occasion, which for me, cannot be seen as a bad thing.

On the field

But despite the mind games, football matches are ultimately always decided by the players on the field.

Both United and Chelsea are coming off midweek Champions League draws, 0-0 in Seville for United and a spirited 1-1 at home to Barcelona for the Blues.

There was plenty of discussion, as there usually is in today’s media, about Paul Pogba on Wednesday, after Mourinho chose to leave out his record signing in favour of academy prospect Scott McTominay – only to be forced into reinstating the Frenchman after just 17 minutes due to Ander Herrera’s injury.

Pogba was solid if entirely unspectacular (much like the entire United team bar David De Gea) in his 75 minutes, but the situation itself has created fresh concerns at Old Trafford – there is a certain awkwardness and distrust created when a manager drops a high-profile player for a big game, only to have to call on him minutes later.

But with Herrera now on the casualties list, Pogba is almost certain to start on Sunday, most likely as part of a midfield three with McTominay and ex-Chelsea man Nemanja Matic. United will line up with Alexis Sanchez, Romelu Lukaku, and one of Mourinho’s revolving cast of right-wingers up top – likely Marcus Rashford.

At the back, it’ll be up to a less than convincing backline of Valencia, Smalling, Lindelof and Young to try and offer more protection to their goalkeeper than was given in Seville.

For Chelsea, despite regret over gifting Barcelona such a vital away goal on Tuesday, they are likely to head north full of confidence after going head-to-head with the best team on the planet and making a real game of it. Willian, who looked immense in striking Barcelona’s woodwork twice before curling home a lovely effort to open the scoring, should retain his place as part of Chelsea’s attacking trio.

Eden Hazard led the line against Barca, but complained of a lack of touches in the central role, saying “You don’t get a lot of balls. I might have touched 25 balls that night, and 15 were flying towards my head. That’s not really playing to my qualities.”

The Belgian’s clear desire to return to the left-wing, plus the return to fitness of Alvaro Morata, will likely see Hazard’s wishes fulfilled against United, with Morata set to return to the lineup against the team he thought he was joining last summer.

Danny Drinkwater may get a look-in alongside N’Golo Kante, who against Barcelona returned to the destructive form that has been somewhat lacking at times this season, and Andreas Christensen will be looking to bounce back strongly after his errant pass gifted the all-important away goal to Lionel Messi on Tuesday.

Prediction

Let’s be honest – neither side will be harbouring dreams of anything more than second place in the league this season.

Manchester City have been too good, and got too far ahead to be threatened by anybody at this stage. It did seem at one point that United were nailed on to follow their local rivals home to a comfortable second place, but their sputtering start to 2018 has left them just two points clear of Liverpool behind them – and only three ahead of Chelsea.

It’s a game that could have huge ramifications on the Champions League places, one that neither can comfortably afford to lose.

Given that, and the amount of pride on the line between two coaches that clearly resent each other, and we are looking at what will surely be a tight and nervy game. It pains me to say it, but when you factor in the presence of the two best goalkeepers in the Premier League, all roads lead to a 0-0 for me.

As someone who’s paying a premium to attend on Sunday, I really hope I’m wrong.

‘Too dangerous’ – fans fear 2018 World Cup trouble

Fears are growing that the 2018 World Cup Finals in Russia will be marred by hooliganism.

Hardcore thugs from Russia went on the rampage during Euro 2016, with England fans the victims in Marseille.

One Russian MP even went so far recently as to suggest that fighting among supporters should be a sport in itself.

With such worrying pronouncements coming from establishment figures, will fearful English football fans opt to stay away from the 2018 tournament?

Crystal Davis, Mike Newell and Lucas Chomicki spoke to supporters on their way to the London Stadium for the West Ham v Chelsea match in the Premier League to gauge their opinions.

 

Q&A – Bake Off star Selasi

If you’re a fan of The Great British Bake Off, you will have seen Selasi Gbormittah competing for the coveted title.

The Ghanaian, whose family moved to the UK 15 years ago, became known to millions of viewers for his calmness and humour throughout the most recent series, as well as producing eye-catching flavours and bakes.

He ended up as a semi-finalist and went out with his head held high, having served up everything from a beautiful three-tiered ombre floral cake to iced hot biscuits which spiced up Mary Berry’s tastebuds.

As well as baking, Selasi, who works in banking, has other hobbies such as playing basketball and has a strong interest in motorcycles.

Elephant Sport spoke to the 30 year old about his sporting stories and his love for basketball and bikes, and much more.

Firstly, what inspired you to play basketball?

It is sport played back in Ghana at schools and all around. Football was also popular although I took more of a liking to basketball. I played for three years for my university basketball team. I still have the jersey and refuse to get rid of it.

Do you have a favourite NBA team?

Yes, the LA Lakers.

What basketball position do you play in?

Guard. I’m a pretty good three-point shooter.

You enjoy riding motorcycles, do you have a collection of different bikes?

I don’t have that luxury yet, but I’m planning to get one or two more additions as the current one feels a little bit lonely. Another sportsbike or a café racer for easy rides across London.

What is your favourite motorcycle?

I love sportsbikes. I started off on a naked bike, but sportsbikes walk the talk.

Are you interested in other sports such as football or rugby? If you like football, do you have a favourite team?

I enjoy football. I don’t understand rugby as much as I would like to. I had a mid-life crisis (as my friends call it), a few years back and joined a local rugby team to understand the sport a bit better, but I quit within weeks. Anyway, back to football – I’m a Chelsea fan.

Do you have any funny or memorable moments of playing any sport? If so, would you kindly share that story?

Yes, during a basketball game with I think Loughborough University, we were losing and I decided to take a shot because I thought time was up and it ended up being a rather embarrassing ‘air ball’. My coach was NOT impressed because we still had two minutes to go and I got sent to the bench.

Growing up, did you have dreams of becoming a sportsman?

No chance. I wanted to be a chef and work in the kitchen.

Favourite basketball player and why?

Kobe Bryant, a great player and a real all-rounder. He led the team and is a real role model.

Favourite football player and team and why?

Didier Drogba. Way too many out there but Drogba stands out as he used to torment defenders, ha, ha! He’s also a great leader for the sport and does a lot of work outside of football to help others less fortunate than him.

And lastly, are you planning to have a motorcycle ride with Paul Hollywood soon?

Who knows with this UK weather!

You can find Selasi on Twitter @selasigb and on Instagram @selasigb. Featured image courtesy of the BBC.

‘I’m certainly not going to call for Wenger to go’

Ranked amongst the top 10 stand-ups in Britain by The Independent, comedian Ian Stone has flourished to become one of the most talented topical acts in the country.

Currently presenting ‘The Football’s On’ for BT Sport, the north Londoner is a regular on shows like Mock the Week but his lifelong passion is Arsenal. Elephant Sport spoke to him about the highs and lows of being a Gooner, Arsene Wenger and much more.

How did you feel about the last weekend’s north London derby?  

Stone with Arsenal legend Brady

It was a fair result. They have some decent attacking players, they hit the post and I thought they played alright particularly in the first half an hour so 1-1 is probably fair.

We were kind of flat but we haven’t been brilliant in most games this season to be honest. We are muddling through.

It’s not the best but we are in it so I’ll take that.

Where do you think Arsenal will finish come the end of the season?

Genuinely – I’ve no idea. We could win it or we could finish third. The race will be between Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Spurs and us.

It will be tight. I would like us to be running away with the league but that’s not going to happen so I enjoy the big games.

Anyone can win it, even Spurs – I hate them but they’re a decent team. They have a good squad but ours is better.

Not having European football will benefit Liverpool and Chelsea but none of the teams are defensively good, apart from Spurs, so that’s why I think they are a threat.

Growing up what was the best thing you witnessed as an Arsenal fan? 

That’s not an easy question. But if you’re talking about the school years, then seeing Liam Brady for the first time and going ‘wow the way he plays is just beautiful’. I loved him and I still do.

How did you first become interested in Arsenal?

My dad. He just took me to Highbury and I thought ‘yeah this is it, I love this place’. That’s what happens to most of us, isn’t it?

Favourite all-time Arsenal player and why?

Hard to pick one. Brady first, I loved him, and Pat Jennings too. When it was a one on one with the keeper and Jennings was in goal, you thought they were never going to beat him. Tony Adams, because he loved the club as much as I do and Ian Wright for the same reason.

Dennis Bergkamp because he’s probably the best footballer I have ever seen, Thierry Henry because he’s a close second. There’s many, but those players are great players and they loved the club, and as a fan that’s what you want really.

Dennis Bergkamp was a great but comparisons have been made between Mesut Ozil and him – what is your opinion of the German?

Ozil. That goal against Ludogorets. I could watch that goal a million times and I wouldn’t get bored. That second dummy… the bloke is a genius and unlike any footballer I have ever seen. He has a lovely style about him.

When he first arrived, I was a bit disappointed. There were some moments but he didn’t really impose himself in games and you thought ‘you really could win this game on your own if you could be bothered’ but now he’s bulked up a bit and he’s scoring goals.

He’s an outstanding footballer and I’m glad we’ve got him. I love watching him.

Away at Villa last season, he brought the ball down right in front of me and you just thought ‘how did he even do that’?  That’s what I love about Ozil. He makes the incredibly difficult look incredibly easy.

Favourite current Arsenal player and why?

Alexis Sanchez. He just loves the game and he loves to play. Alexis is a great footballer. I’m so glad we have got him as it’s a pleasure to watch players like that.

Arsene Wenger is into his 20th season at Arsenal but what is your take on the boss?

Last season I was fed up, we had a great opportunity to win the title, and for all the romance of Leicester winning, we blew it and I blamed Wenger.

Sometimes when he’s signed players like Igor Stepanovs and Marouane Chamakh, I’ve sat there thinking ‘what on earth are you doing?’, but what can you say about the boss?

He creates beautiful football teams and will be remembered long after we’ve all gone as someone who created a style of football. He’s made some mistakes but we all have. He’ll go when he wants to go. I’m certainly not going to call for him to go.

What I would love more than anything is for him to win the Champions League and sign off with that. He deserves it but you know his legacy.

We all sit in the most beautiful of stadiums and that’s all down to him so I have the most positive of feelings towards him.

I’ve not had a 20-year relationship with anyone who hasn’t pissed me off though!

Who would you get as his replacement when he decides to leave?

I wanted Jurgen Klopp but he’s at the right club at Liverpool, they suit him. Anytime we ever talk about a possible replacement, it all goes wrong for them.

Ronald Koeman is a very good manager and we will see what happens despite losing 5-0 to Chelsea on the weekend!

There’s been talk of Diego Simeone but I don’t think he’s right for Arsenal. He needs the fans onside and I think our fans are a little bit different.

We can be aroused but I don’t think we are right for Simeone. We’ll see what happens but I don’t think Arsene is going away for a while yet.

Best goal you have ever witnessed as an Arsenal fan?

Against Bayer Leverkusen in a Champions League game at Highbury. Robert Pires was penned in in the corner by three defenders but somehow managed to play a 40-yard pass to Dennis Bergkamp in the centre of the pitch.

He killed it, exchanged passes with Patrick Vieira and he’s away. Bergkamp plays the ball inside the full back to Sylvain Wiltord, who lays it across to Thierry Henry, who’s sprinted 80-yards to side-foot it in.

From one end of the pitch to the other in six seconds – it was the most exhilarating thing I’ve seen Arsenal ever do.

Worst moment as an Arsenal fan?

Losing the Champions League final to Barcelona was bad – I enjoyed the trip to Paris but not the game. Losing the 2000 UEFA Cup final to Galatasaray on penalties was awful.

In the 1980 season, I went to 60 games out of 68, and we lost to West Ham in the FA Cup final, then Valencia in the Cup Winners Cup final and somehow managed to get hammered by Middlesbrough 5-0. That was pretty grim.

Best moment as an Arsenal fan?

Beating Barcelona at the Emirates a few years ago was pretty awesome, and Thierry Henry scoring on his comeback against Leeds United in the FA Cup was special too. I interviewed him for a radio thing and he loved talking about that moment.

How impressed have you been with Alexis Sanchez up front this season?

It’s working. I like the fact that there’s movement when Sanchez is up front. Olivier Giroud is a great sub and you can bring him on and play him in a two but I like the mobility of the team when Sanchez plays.

What have you made of the summer signings of Shkodran Mustafi and Granit Xhaka?

Excellent. Two very good signings. We needed spine – we’ve got it now.

How do you feel about the progress that Laurent Koscielny has made over the years to become one of the world’s best defenders? 

I think most people realise how good Koscielny is. He’s got better as quite often defenders do so I’m pleased for him and he enjoys being at the club so let him stay as long as he wants!

Which player that left the club hurt you the most?

It killed me losing Patrick Vieira but he wanted to go. I remember him coming on as an 18 year old against Sheffield Wednesday – we were losing and he turned the game. He was a stunning footballer and a fighter and I loved him and Emmanuel Petit together.

How do you see Arsenal fairing throughout the season and could this be Wenger’s final season?

I think if he wins the Premier League or Champions League, I think he will stay. We can win the league but will we? If we get lucky with injuries, we will be there come May, but it’s very tight. Our position in the league is good at the moment – let’s see.

Lastly, how do you feel Arsenal will fair against Manchester United after the international break?

I want to beat them so badly. I’ve not seen Arsenal win many games at Old Trafford but I went to the FA Cup game there when we won 2-1 with Danny Welbeck scoring, and it was absolutely wicked – 9,000 of us there on a Monday night.

What I loved was weeks later, reading that the players had been so happy with the support and the difference it had made. That means a lot to the fans. I love winning at Old Trafford, so hopefully we will.

I’d love us to have a run in the Champions League too. I want us to finish first in the group and give ourselves a chance because if we do that, the second leg of the next round will be at home and that’s huge.

It’s a long time since we went far in Europe and if we got to the semis and do well in the League, Ozil and Sanchez will stay and we can continue to improve. We’re doing all right at the moment, I’m enjoying it so let’s continue!

Follow Ian Stone on Twitter @iandstone

Five loan players who returned to haunt their clubs

On-loan goalkeeper Lukasz Skorupski recently put in the performance of his life for Empoli to thwart his parent club Roma in Serie A.

The Pole stood firm against the likes of Mo Salah and Edin Dzeko as strugglers Empoli held high-flying Roma to a goalless draw, leaving them four points behind leaders Juventus.

Loan players often have clauses in their temporary deals to prevent them from playing in competitive matches against their clubs – in England this is pretty much standard practice.

But there have been enough instances of it happening across continental Europe to warrant us selecting a top five of players whose clubs were left to rue the day they let them go on loan.

5. Lukasz Skorupski (Empoli vs. Roma)

Skorupski was in commanding form (Credit: Gabriele Maltini)

The most recent of the bunch, Skorupski played for Empoli last weekend and had one of the games of his career. Saving multiple shots and keeping out Stephen El Shaarawy in the 93rd minute of the game.

It opens up the age-old debate: is the player putting in a super-human effort because he’s playing against his parent team to prove a point? Only Lukasz knows the answer to that.

It’s hard to imagine, though, that Roma boss Luciano Spalletti will be pleased with his performance…

4: Kingsley Coman (Bayern Munich vs. Juventus)

Kingsley Coman is the world’s new young footballing superstar, having played for Paris Saint Germain, Juventus and Bayern Munich, all before he turned 20 years old.

Bayern signed him on a two-year loan deal with an option to buy in the summer of 2015.

In March, he returned to Juve and gave them cause for regret about the conditions of his loan by scoring the final goal against in Bayern’s 4-2-comeback win at the Allianz Arena in the Champions League.

I think it’s fair to say he might not be too welcome back in Turin anytime soon….

You can watch Coman’s goal here.

3. Thibaut Courtois (Atletico Madrid vs. Chelsea)

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Courtois denies Gary Cahill (Credit: Javier Soriano)

Before the build-up to this game there was a lot of controversy surrounding the decision to allow Thibaut Courtois to play against Chelsea.

This was due to Courtois having a clause in his loan contract not allowing him to play against his parent club; however, Fifa reversed this ruling, allowing him to play.

Atletico thanked their lucky stars that Fifa got involved because the Belgian pulled an amazing performance out of the bag, thwarting multiple Chelsea attacks and helping Atletico advance to the next round in the Champions League.

His performance evidently underlined his qualities for the Blues, and he became their first-choice goalkeeper as of the next season.

2. Anderson Talisca (Besiktas vs. Benfica)

Anderson Talisca is one for the Football Manager heads reading this article. He’s an incredibly talented Brazilian youngster who is on the books with Benfica.

The 22-year-old attacker is somewhat reminiscent of Ronaldinho or Juninho when he’s standing over a dead-ball situation.

It was surprising to see him go on loan to Besiktas at the beginning of the season; however it was even more surprising to see him come on at half-time with Besiktas trailing 1-0 to Benfica in the Champions League.

What happened next isn’t something you see everyday. Talisca hit the ball sweetly from a direct free kick and the ball whistled into the top corner. He did this in the 92nd minute to earn Besiktas a draw against his parent team.

You can watch Talisca’s wonder goal here.

1. Fernando Morientes (Monaco vs. Real Madrid)

Back in 2004, Fernando Morientes, a player unwanted by Real Madrid and loaned to Monaco, scored a goal in each leg which helped condemn his parent club to the unthinkable.

The striker had a point to prove against his parent club, who had decided he was ‘not needed’.

What better way to prove yourself than scoring two goals and knocking your team out of the Champions League in the semi-finals?

Seeing as he was on his way to Liverpool the next season anyway, it was the perfect parting shot for Morientes.

Mourinho made to suffer on Chelsea return

On his first match back at Stamford Bridge as manager of another English team, former Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho was given a stark reminder of how easily things can change in football.

Stood in the opposition dugout and now at the helm of Manchester United, Mourinho watched on as his team’s dreadful start to the game inspired chants of “you’re not special anymore” from – admittedly, only a minority of – home supporters.

A year ago, those same fans were well and truly singing a different tune, in unison. “Stand up for the Special One,” was once the cry around Stamford Bridge as the Blues struggled to defend their Premier League title. Not anymore.

A broken man

As he witnessed the 4-0 dismantling of his United side from the technical area, Mourinho cut a frustrated and disappointed figure.

“Mourinho’s body language in Sunday’s game was a reminder of a chapter that most in west London want forgotten”

It was a sight that Chelsea supporters were already familiar with, engraved into the memories of those who cannot simply ignore the disastrous season of 2015/16.

We all know the story, and Mourinho’s body language in Sunday’s game was a reminder of a chapter that most in west London want forgotten.

Moving on

Ten months after the 53-year-old’s sacking, however, it seems Chelsea have finally started to turn a corner.

Slowly but surely, former Italy coach Antonio Conte, now occupying Mourinho’s old seat in the dugout, is repairing the damage left behind by his predecessor.

New Chelsea boss Antonio Conte has started to make friends at the Bridge ©Nazionale Calcio

Players who were shattered in confidence under Mourinho, like Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and Nemanja Matic, are now all performing at their very best again thanks to the Italian.

With a renewed sense of freedom and adventure, the days of players feeling shackled and restricted under Mourinho are a thing of the past.

Chelsea midfielders and forwards alike are truly blossoming in Conte’s 3-4-3 system, and the former Juventus manager is reaping the rewards of having ditched the 4-1-4-1 formation deployed earlier this season, a formation similar to that of Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1, in favour of his trusted three-man defensive set-up.

The future

After a bleak, dark and depressing 2015/16 season, the future looks somewhat brighter for Chelsea.

It is too early to predict whether Conte will be a success or not at Stamford Bridge. But what can be seen clearly under the 47-year-old is the establishment of an on-field identity and a long-term vision for the club.

Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool and Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham are often picked up for the high-intensity football and constant pressing game they play on instruction from their respective managers, and Conte too wants his Chelsea team to be recognised for such.

For Mourinho, it was about winning at all costs. However, that does not seem to be the case for Conte.

For the three-time Serie A winning manager, Chelsea must win, and win in style.

Chalobah could play a key role in Chelsea’s future ©Wikimedia Commons:

As well as what appears to be a difference in footballing philosophy between the two, Conte has made it clear that unlike Mourinho, he intends to utilise the young talent that Chelsea have produced or are producing.

John Terry – who made his debut in 1998 – was the last success story to come from Chelsea’s academy, but that could soon be about to change under Conte, a manager renowned for giving those who deserve to play a chance regardless of their age.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Ola Aina and Nathaniel Chalobah are all a part Conte’s plans with the latter finding himself gaining more first-team minutes as each matchday passes.

As for Mourinho and Manchester United, something has to give sooner or later if they wish for a change in fortune. But that is not Chelsea’s concern.

After all, Mourinho himself said it better than anyone else could have after Frank Lamapard’s move to Manchester City in 2014. “When he decided to go to a direct competitor then love stories are over.”

Featured image: ©Aleksandr Osipov