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The Big Three: A hat trick of talking points in the USWNT’s 4-1 win over China

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The USWNT’s showdown against China featured some nervy moments, but ended on a high. There were nearly as many talking points as there were spectators (i.e. many). But for the sake of brevity, here are three.

Alex Morgan is in a very, very good place right now.

The USWNT’s ‘It-girl’ padded her already impressive stats with two goals on the night. Her 35th minute goal – and credit to the typically industrious Heather O’Reilly for the assist – leveled matters at 1-1. It had something of a calming effect on the U.S.’s jittery attack. She followed that effort up in the 50th minute with a lovely solo shot that essentially capped off the victory. Both strikes were vintage Morgan: composed, clinical, completed with fine technique.

That said, her combination play with Abby Wambach looked a tad bit disjointed at times. China played with a high defensive line in the first half, which may have compromised the passing fluidity between the two. Morgan acknowledged the difficulties in her post-match comments. “[China’s defense was] smart and organized. They would bring the line up and catch you offside sometimes. They were pretty tricky and I needed to watch myself…and be aware that they were going to drop or step really quickly.”

Morgan managed to unlock China’s defense which went a long way in securing the win. She’s now scored 14 goals in 12 matches this year. That incredible goal tally will be put into context shortly.

Sundhage’s second half adjustments paid off tremendously.

The USWNT has a bizarre habit of having disconcertingly unsteady first half showings. The team more than makes up for their sluggish starts with spirited performances in the latter half. Maybe Pia Sundhage gives especially rousing halftime speeches. Either that or she makes impactful second half substitutions.

Tonight’s game followed the same script. Carli Lloyd was exchanged in favor of Lauren Cheney at the half. Cheney – a versatile, tour de force kind of player – has dabbled in nearly every position in midfield. Tonight she settled in alongside holding midfielder Shannon Boxx in what looked like an unorthodox double six formation with two deep-lying midfielders.

The tactical switch paid dividends as Cheney’s clean-up work gave the attacking players more license to bomb forward. The ball was played through the central channels more frequently and possession was maintained for longer spells. Neither of those things happened all that much in the first half.

There was another catalyst for the U.S.’s adventurous second half exploits and her name is Megan Rapinoe. Either Sundhage instructed the left midfielder to move into a more central role following Lloyd’s departure or she took it upon herself. Rapinoe sat behind Morgan and Wambach and helped dictate the team’s passes through midfield. It resulted in a more fluid style of play that stood in stark contrast to the team’s listless first half.

Kelley O’Hara is among the players eager to hop on that plane to London.

O’Hara was today named to the U.S.’s Olympic roster, and tonight’s performance proves why. The converted left back is making rapid progress in her new position.

As has been the case in previous games, O’Hara found an untold amount of confidence as the match progressed. She also showed off some of her attacking flair, proving she hasn’t learned to ignore her offensive instincts. O’Hara’s link-up play with Rapinoe down the left flank was one of the U.S.’s most dynamic creative tandems.

Sydney Leroux is also en route to the U.K. She made a cameo appearance tonight, but showed her value coming off the bench. Her quick thinking and quicker reflexes nearly resulted in the U.S.’s fifth goal of the night when she almost caught China’s goalkeeper out seconds before stoppage time expired.

The kits made their debut appearances on the USWNT. It’s been said a hundred times before, but having a gray number against a white background defeats the purpose of having numbers on shirts.

The webcast featured zero technical hiccups which was a welcome relief. Constant buffering made the stream of the USWNT/Sweden friendly last November virtually unwatchable. Indeed, beggars can’t be choosers, but it was lovely to see the production go off without a hitch.

Speaking of which, the sold out crowd made the occasion twice as nice. The atmosphere sounded quite lively up to China’s early goal before cooling off. It jolted back to life following Wambach’s 83rd minute goal. The evening ended with a crescendo of fireworks, which was also a nice touch.

Premier League preview: Manchester City vs. Southampton

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 21: Manuel Pellegrini, manager of Manchester City looks on during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Liverpool at Etihad Stadium on November 21, 2015 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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  • Manchester City has lost both its home matches against top-10 sides this season
  • Southampton is six matches away unbeaten – club record is seven
  • Southampton has lost five straight at the Etihad across all competitions

Depending on results, Manchester City could be on top of the league come the end of the weekend if they can pick up three points when they welcome Southampton to the Etihad on Saturday (Watch live, 10:00 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra).

Unfortunately, they’ll face the Saints very banged up, something which has caused the home side plenty of issues recently. Goalkeeper Joe Hart suffered a hamstring injury midweek and will miss out, as will defenders Vincent Kompany, Pablo Zabaleta and Eliaquim Mangala.

[ WATCH LIVE: Stream every PL game via Live Extra ]

Manuel Pellegrini‘s squad struggled mightily at times without Sergio Aguero up front during his four-match injury absence. Aguero is back and scored last week in the 4-1 loss to Liverpool, but now the back line is giving the Chilean boss headaches. They broke again midweek, a 1-0 loss to Juventus in Champions League play leaving City fans scratching their heads.

Southampton saw its six-match unbeaten run come to a surprising end against Stoke City last weekend, and that puts them in an awkward spot, stuck in a clogged portion of the Premier League table where the gap between sixth and 11th is just two points. With a difficult London list of Spurs, Arsenal, and West Ham on the docket surrounding the December holidays, stolen points here at the Etihad would go a long way later on.

The Saints are also shorthanded, with Graziano Pelle suspended for yellow card accumulation after picking up his fifth of the season against Stoke. With Jay Rodriguez still sidelined, that leaves Shane Long to lead the Southampton attack.

What they’re saying

Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini on injury problems: “All the clubs have the same problems here in England and in other European leagues, because the players have to play so many games in the year and they have to go to their national squads with long flights.”

Southampton midfielder Steven Davis on Manchester City: “The demand from their fans is to win every game and they’re coming off the back of a couple of bad results. They will be looking to put it right. It should be an entertaining game but we’ll need to be at our best to get something. I’m confident we can go there and do that.”


Because of Manchester City’s defensive issues, summer signing Nicolas Otamendi will be forced back into the starting lineup after finding himself on the bench for the Liverpool loss. Since Otamendi looked off the pace in his first two Premier League matches (both of which City lost), he has acclimated quite well – the club has conceded just three goals in the Argentinian’s five matches following those two defeats.

With the striker issues for Southampton, City will use the return of David Silva to run Southampton down. Silva is known for playing his part in early goals, and the first 15 minutes will be key in this match. Manchester City will get one early, and they will return to their winning ways on a 2-0 victory.

Words fly as Mathieu Valbuena opens up about blackmail scandal

LISBON, PORTUGAL - SEPTEMBER 04: France's midfielder Matthieu Valbuena celebrating France goal during the Friendly match between Portugal and France on September 04, 2015 in Lisbon, Portugal.  (Photo by Carlos Rodrigues/Getty Images)
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Lyon midfielder Mathieu Valbuena has spoken out for the first time about the sex tape scandal that has rocked the French national team.

If what he says proves to be true, Karim Benzema could be in a whole heap of trouble.

Valbuena told his story to French newspaper Le Monde, where he explained how things began in May of 2015 with a phone call from Djibril Cisse that suggested someone had a tape of the 31-year-old Valbuena. A few days later a blocked number called Valbuena asking to meet in Dubai about the video. The Frenchman got the police involved, and then Benzema approached him during national team training.

“He [Benzema] spoke to me about a video. Immediately, I thought back to what the police chief had told me on Sunday [that someone would approach him about the video].  Then he asked me to meet a friend that he presented to be very reliable, very serious, someone that he had complete confidence in, to arrange all of that. So, anyway, I am not an idiot!

I was sceptical to say the least. Even if, it was true, at the start I said to him: “Thank you for warning me”, I was doubtful that if he wants me to meet someone, it is not for nothing. The way in which he conveyed things, it was certainly to provoke me to see someone, indirectly, it means to pay this person to destroy the video.”

Valbuena said Benzema never actually asked him to pay for the video to be destroyed, but that it was heavily implied. “I played his game, I told him, me I would like very much to pay for my freedom, but we all know that if you pay, it is endless, there will always be copies etc. He told me: ‘Don’t worry, I have total confidence in my friend, there will be no more duplicates, they will be destroyed.’ He insisted a lot for me to meet his friend.”

The Frenchman later would implicate Samir Nasri as someone who, according to Valbuena, had offered to approach him instead of Benzema. “[Nasri] is someone who is no longer part of the French national team. My relationship has always been difficult with Nasri. Now, nothing surprises me.”

Both have responded. Benzema’s lawyer gave an interview to French radio station RMC saying that there was contact between the two about the tape, but that the conversation saw Benzema encourage Valbuena not to pay for anything. Nasri also spoke to RMC, completely denying any involvement in the case by saying, “It is not my problem, not my situation.”

Benzema has been charged with conspiracy to blackmail for his role as an intermediary, but the investigation is still in the preliminary stages.

Premier League preview: Leicester City vs. Manchester United

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 07:  Jamie Vardy of Leicester City celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Leicester City and Watford at The King Power Stadium on November 7, 2015 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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  • Leicester sits atop the Premier League table with 28 points
  •  Manchester United has conceded just once in their last 7 league games
  • Leicester’s Premier League games have produced 48 goals, the most in the league

Yes, this is #1 vs #2. No, your eyes are not deceiving you.

And yet somehow, that magnificent lede has been buried thanks to one Jamie Vardy.

The 28-year-old can break Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s Premier League record of 10 straight games with a goal as Leicester City hosts Van Nistelrooy’s former team Manchester United at King Power Stadium (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra).

[ WATCH LIVE: Stream every PL game via Live Extra ]

The Foxes are firmly atop the Premier League table, but many question whether they can hang onto that, and even others remain skeptical whether they can truly challenge for a top four spot this season. Saturday’s game will be a true test of their ability to remain in the hunt for the long haul, as the Red Devils are just a point off the top and, while it hasn’t been pretty at times this year, van Gaal’s men have done enough to pick up results in key situations.

On the other end, Manchester United has conceded just one goal in its last five league matches, and has not allowed a goal from open play since the Arsenal drubbing in early October. Can Vardy find space in the tight Red Devils’ back line?

Both teams are relatively healthy coming into this matchup. Leicester is only missing long-term absentee Matty Jones, while Manchester United is a little more banged up with Ander Herrera, Phil Jones, and Michael Carrick likely out alongside Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia.

What they’re saying

Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal on Leicester City’s chances at title“Normally these kind of clubs can compete for long time, then at the end it becomes more difficult. But in England because of the quality of the teams, because every team has the money to buy players – and they have bought players – the difference in the Premier League between the clubs is not so high.”

Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri on the Foxes’ aim“The league is very strange and open but our goal is 40 points. Our goal at the moment is this but let me see the next two months and then maybe I change the goal. Like everybody else I am also curious in these days to watch my team, and to see how we respond in these big matches.”


Manchester United’s results have been there, and they’ve created a ton of chances. On the flip side, Leicester’s improved defensive organization is solid enough to hold off the Red Devils. This one ends 1-1, and there is no change at the top. Vardy gets the Foxes’ goal, because who doesn’t like fun things?

Jurgen Klopp says Daniel Sturridge must learn how to manage pain

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 22:  The injured  Daniel Sturridge of Liverpool watches from the stands  during the UEFA Europa League Group B match between Liverpool FC and Rubin Kazan at Anfield on October 22, 2015 in Liverpool, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Liverpool is rising up the table under Jurgen Klopp, and while the squad is getting healthier and healthier as opposed to when Klopp first took over, one man who remains on the sidelines is Daniel Sturridge.

An unused substitute in Liverpool’s last two games after missing a month due to injury, Daniel Sturridge has suffered yet another setback to his foot, Klopp confirmed from Melwood training ground today.

[ RELATED: Klopp confirms Sturridge to remain out with another injury setback ]

But while Klopp is being patient with his oft-injured striker, he believes Sturridge can do better to get himself back on the field.

“Everyone wants him back on the pitch but we all have to learn,” Klopp said. “The situation is Daniel was very often injured in the last few months, and maybe years, so it is normal when you get back in training usually it is not the quality, but you need training. Your body has to learn to adapt to new intensities of training and in this time you have to learn what is serious pain and what is only pain.”

[ MORE: Liverpool moving up Premier League power rankings ]

Due to the heavy amount of injuries, Sturridge has made just three appearances this season, and 15 total in the 2015 calendar year.

It’s clear the impact Sturridge can have for this Liverpool squad, as despite just his three appearances, he has two goals, both coming in the 3-2 win over Aston Villa. The 26-year-old is an electric player, but the club needs to get him back on the field to reap the benefits. Sturridge would complete the striker comeback for Klopp, who arrived to helm the Reds with Sturridge, Christian Benteke, and Danny Ings all sidelined with injuries. Ings is out for the season with an ACL injury and will not return, but Benteke is back alongside Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino who are in good form.