Early take-aways from United States win over Guatemala

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KANSAS CITY — United States soccer team moved into final-round World Cup qualifying with a 3-1 win Tuesday over Guatemala in Kansas City. Here are some initial thoughts on the night as the United States’ drive toward its seventh consecutive World Cup (all of them since 1986) is now into its final push.

  • Advancing was always Job 1 on Tuesday, to get the result that propels them into the final six in regional World Cup qualifying. So, that’s a big check-plus. All the critical, comprehensive analysis can (and will) come later, because the second round was harder than most people expected. But for now, everyone can breathe a little. The United States will join Jamaica from this group in next year’s final stage.
  • Guatemala is out, obviously. They simply could not get the draw they came into Kansas City to get.
  • For all the face-twisting and teeth gnashing, the United States finished atop the group.
  • There were lots of good individual performances, as there rightly should have been against an outmanned bunch from Guatemala. Danny Williams and Michael Bradley performed well in the middle. Graham Zusi – those weren’t boos, they were yelling “Zuuus” for the hometown hero – added a lot on the outside, working well once again with right back Steve Cherundolo. And Clint Dempsey’s two goals speak for themselves; yes, they were tap-ins, but getting yourself in the right spots means a lot.
  • In the match that mattered, Bradley and Williams were the central midfield preferences for U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann. If we’re guessing, and unless Stuart Holden can get healthy and say something about it, that certainly is looking like the preferred central pairing for the final round and, if they make it, for Brazil 2014.
  • It must have been awfully frustrating in the late going for the Guatemalans, who had precious few chances on to gather themselves offensive and move forward over the last 20 minutes. That was credit to the U.S. ability to keep the ball, with Bradley orchestrating the drive to keep possession. Along with Williams, Dempsey and Cherundolo (and others, but those in particular), they kept the ball moving at a good pace – away from the tiring visitors, which was the important part.
  • All this high tech fitness stuff must be good for something. The United States clearly had more gas left in the tank after 65 or 70 minutes, when the Guatemalans wilted down to practically nothing. Even with the knowledge that they desperately needed goals, the visitors could do very little in terms of bothering the U.S. back line.
  • Lots of Americans – heck, lots of folks around the CONCACAF region – are celebrating this little dandy bit tonight: This was probably the last we’ll ever see of Carlos Ruiz in World Cup Qualifying. Truly, he may be the most infuriating player in the world.
  • No one on the field, on either side, has the sophistication to run the midfield like Bradley. His work throughout the match was tactically sound and technically adept, playing more offensively (slightly ahead of Williams) early, and then alongside in a more conventional 4-4-2 in the second half. And that third U.S. goal, all the way through, from the swell dummy to the delicate little chip over the goalkeeper, was top-class stuff.
  • In all honesty, it’s fair to begin asking if Carlos Bocanegra can play at this level anymore? He’s playing in the Spanish second division, and on a bad team at that. So, I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that the speed of the international game catches him sometimes unawares.
  • It certainly did on that first goal, when the U.S. back line was all over the place. The line was too high, Bocanegra and Cameron were too far apart and then the U.S. captain simply didn’t have the foot speed to catch … Ruiz? Ruiz is a lot of things, but “fast” isn’t one of them.
  • Klinsmann: “We didn’t need to take that first goal. The good thing was the response. We turned it right around.”

LIVE, UCL – Sevilla vs. Man United, Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Roma

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Jose Mourinho has created a splash this morning by benching Paul Pogba despite utilizing a 3-man central midfield formation as Manchester United heads to Spain to take on Sevilla in their Champions League Round of 16 first leg meeting.

Pogba was left out of Saturday’s win over Huddersfield Town in the FA Cup due to illness, but having made the trip to Sevilla with the matchday squad, it seems his omission is instead due to tactical reasons. 21-year-old academy product Scott McTominay starts in Pogba’s place alongside Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera, with the Frenchman on the bench among the substitutes.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

The decision is surprising given Manchester United’s 16-point deficit in the Premier League table as they trail runaway favorites Manchester City, leaving the Champions League as the best competition remaining that the Red Devils have a shot to win.

Up front for Manchester United, Alexis Sanchez carries the creative load along with Juan Mata, with both supporting Romelu Lukaku at the striker position. Meanwhile, Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof continue to work as the central defensive partnership, while Antonio Valencia captains the side as full-back, mirrored by Ashley Young on the other edge.

In the other matchup, Roma heads to the Ukraine to take on Shakhtar Donetsk, who finished 2nd in Group F three points behind Manchester City. The Ukranian side has only just returned from its winter break, with just a single game played since December 10th.

Roma, meanwhile, has pulled itself out of a rut just in time for the return of Champions League play, with three straight Serie A wins coming on the heels of a five-match winless run. They have scored eight goals over those three wins, with a pair of road clean sheets among the group. 20-year-old Turkish winger Cengiz Under is on fire over the win streak, scoring four goals over that span.


Today’s UEFA Champions League Round of 16 schedule

Sevilla vs. Manchester United – 2:45 p.m. ET
Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Roma – 2:45 p.m. ET

Reports: Mourinho to leave Paul Pogba out of Champions League lineup

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According to multiple reports across England, including the BBC, Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho is ready to leave Paul Pogba out of his starting lineup for Wednesday’s Champions League match against Sevilla despite utilizing a 4-3-3 formation with three central midfielders.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ]

The reports state that Pogba will be left on the bench in favor of youngster Scott McTominay, who will start alongside Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic. Mourinho has spoken highly of McTominay recently, saying three days ago, “I think Scott deserves more than what he is getting.”

“Maybe it’s because he’s this kind of kid profile: a normal haircut, no tattoos, no big cars, no big watches, humble kid, arrive in the club when he was nine or 10,” Mourinho said in what many perceived to be a thinly veiled slap at Pogba.

Mourinho has held back from publicly criticizing his $125 million midfielder in the media, but his actions on the field suggest otherwise. The 24-year-old has failed to record 90 minutes in three straight Premier League matches, seeing his manager yank him before the full-time whistle in two and failing to make the starting lineup in the other, leaving many to speculate a rift between the two.

The decision is especially surprising given Juan Mata‘s comments earlier Wednesday that suggested Manchester United is prioritizing the Champions League, given their 16-point deficit to Manchester City in the Premier League table.

Pogba missed the 2-0 FA Cup win over Huddersfield on Saturday due to illness, but it’s hard to imagine that four days later that keeps the French superstar on the bench, especially given his ability to make the trip to Sevilla with the matchday squad.

Leicester City settles Financial Fair Play dispute with Football League

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Leicester City will owe the Football League a reduced fine after coming to an agreement with the English lower-league governing body over a dispute regarding the 2013/14 season.

The Foxes, who won the Championship that season and were promoted to the Premier League, were handed an official breach of Financial Fair Play rules after accruing a loss exceeding the allowed $11 million amount. However, Leicester City argued that the deficit was due to “allowable” amounts regarding promotion and academy costs.

After talks between the two parties, the EFL announced Leicester City will owe a reduced amount of $4.33 million. They could have owed up to $18 million, the differential between the allowed amount and their actual posted loss of $20.8 million.

In an official release, the EFL announced, “The EFL acknowledges that [Leicester City] did not make any deliberate attempt to infringe the Rules or to deceive and that the dispute arose out of genuine differences of interpretation of the Rules between the parties.”

After initially receiving word of the notice back in 2014, the Foxes had legally challenged the fine, but that had been put on hold after litigation began in 2015 between the EFL and Queens Park Rangers for a similar dispute. Bournemouth was also fined after incurring a significant loss in their 2014/15 promotion season. Teams that breach rules but are not promoted face transfer bans, such as Fulham, Bolton, and Nottingham Forest received through the 2014/15 season.

Who’s to blame? A closer look at Chelsea’s blunder late vs. Barcelona

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As our very own Joe Prince-Wright explained yesterday in the aftermath of Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Barcelona in the Champions League Round of 16, Antonio Conte could not have set his team up better for success at Stamford Bridge.

And yet, they walked away from the first leg with a disappointing result, one that could set up Barcelona with the advantage as they head to the Camp Nou in two weeks time.

So where did it all go wrong? That pass from Andreas Christensen, obviously – the one that gifted Lionel Messi a late goal. But is Christensen to blame? Or were there other culprits?

Clearly, the pass was ill-advised. Christensen sends the ball across his own box parallel to the goal mouth, which Andreas Iniesta easily pilfers and sends to Messi for his first goal against Chelsea. It was a pass they teach 7-year-olds not to make, one that even the youngest of dedicated soccer players knows to avoid.

Christensen makes an easy target, given that he is just 21 years old, has only just recently earned his way into the Blues starting lineup, and was the most obvious culprit having made the fateful pass.

However, upon closer inspection, it may not have even been meant to reach the far side of the field.

Christensen’s exasperated reaction suggests the pass was likely intended for Cesc Fabregas who sat at the top of the box under little pressure. Christensen was closed down on the far touchline with little room to operate, and his outlet to Fabregas in the middle of the field was a good option, even if the general idea of a pass in that direction is usually frowned upon. However, Christensen’s pass was just slightly behind Fabregas, and the Spaniard ultimately decided to let the ball go instead of chasing it down, leaving it for a less populated area of the field.

Unfortunately, with his back turned to the eventual destination of the pass, Fabregas was unaware that Iniesta had anticipated its flight path and was already making a run to steal the ball. When the veteran Barcelona midfielder reached the ball, he was challenged by a sliding Cesar Azpilicueta, who completely whiffed. While Christensen and Fabregas were culpable of putting the team in a dangerous situation, Azpilicueta’s tackle was an abomination. Azpilicueta actually reached the ball first, but inexplicably failed to make contact with the ball, allowing Iniesta to easily evade the slide and still take charge of the ball.

Andreas Christensen is the clear perpetrator, but Fabregas and Azpilicueta both contributed negatively to the situation, leaving Chelsea at a slight disadvantage heading into a hostile environment despite Antonio Conte’s best efforts. Sadly, Conte will be the one to shoulder the accountability at the end of the season if Chelsea goes out of the Champions League, even though he received top marks for the match, and his players let him down.