Drilling down on: Houston Dynamo 2, at Chicago Fire 1

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If you need one win on the road in Major League Soccer’s playoffs, you sure want Dominic Kinnear coaching your team.

For the second year in a row the Dynamo launched their post-season with a huge road win, this time as the No. 5 seed over No. 4 Chicago Fire at chilly Toyota Park.

Will Bruin had both goals, early on a corner kick and then straight-away after the break. Houston has to rest up quickly; up Sunday is a home match against Eastern Conference champion Sporting Kansas City.

Man of the Match: Will Bruin struggled when Houston asked him to play as a lone striker in a 4-3-3, but he sure looks comfortable when the Dynamo reverts to its tried-and-true 4-4-2. The Dynamo’s “Dancing Bear” scored both of the visitors’ goals by doing what Chicago Fire players mostly could not: ruthlessly finishing his chances in those decisive moments.

Threesome of knowledge: Things We Learned

Hard to say what was more at fault, Chicago’s questionable tactics or Chicago’s curious absence of urgency. It’s the playoffs, fellows! (Maybe that weak crowd had the home town men bummed out.)

Patrick Nyarko on the right and Chris Rolfe up the middle looked up for the job for Chicago. Any others? Not so much. And the Fire’s 4-2-3-1 just didn’t provide enough support. Chicago’s defensive shape generally worked, but Fire manager Frank Klopas sacrificed a lot for the sake of it.  Specifically, holding midfielders Pavel Pardo and Logan Pause proved redundant elements, rarely straying far enough forward to link up with and provide an additional option for Rolfe.

The result was a muted attack. By the time Klopas brought on Brazilian midfielder Alex for Pause at halftime and rearranged the look, it was too late.

Kinnear also used two defensive-minded midfielders. The difference was in Ricardo Clark’s positioning; he played ahead of Adam Moffat in more of a diamond, although he dropped back into a “flat” midfield when Chicago controlled the ball. But getting Clark  forward in his positioning was the tactical checkmate. Well, having Corey Ashe rampaging up and down the left side helped a lot, too.

Don’t blame Fire veteran center back Arne Friedrich for anything that happened. He was everything you’d expect of a man with all that experience, always in the right spots and winning everything coming his way.

Friedrich even supplied the big pass out of the back that led to Chicago’s late goal.

Klopas will do himself a huge favor by convincing the German veteran to stay around for another season.

Neither team’s right back covered himself in glory out there. Chicago’s Jalil Anibaba will remember this one as a Halloween horror. It certainly wasn’t his fault that he slipped while marking Bruin on Houston’s opening goal. Whether that shook his confidence or whether this just wasn’t his night afterward, hard to say. But … ooof!

He struggled to deal with Houston’s left side, Brad Davis coming inside and Ashe overlapping along the outside. Chicago needed to provide more cover, either from Patrick Nyarko or from one of the defensive midfielders. When there wasn’t, Anibaba either had to foul or he struggled to prevent the crosses.

For Houston, young Kofi Sarkodi’s night was a similar orgy of the unfortunate, bad passes, poor-one-on-one defending and failure to step up with the line quickly enough. He did, at least, demonstrate the recovery speed a few times to get himself out of the ditch.

(MORE: Dominic Kinnear pushed the right buttons)

Packaged for take-away

  • Houston manager Dominic Kinnear is now 11-7-4 in the MLS playoffs.
  • Houston didn’t play a perfect game either, but the Chicago Fire’s finishing simply was not as brutally efficient.
  • Chicago’s Sean Johnson is one of the U.S. international up-and-comers, but he sure didn’t look like one early, flubbing an attempted punch and spilling a long-ranged shot into rebound-danger territory.
  • Meanwhile, Houston’s Tally Hall had six saves generally added credibility to the argument that he deserves the national team calls more than Johnson or D.C. United’s Bill Hamid. (Although Hall is a bit older at 27.)
  • We beat on referee Baldomero Toledo on this blog quite a bit. So, only fair to say that he got on top of things early Wednesday, mostly kept the cards in his pocket and managed the match pretty well. He did fall back into the old Toledo habit of not calling fouls late, but it was still one of his better matches.
  • That killer goal for Houston right after second half kickoff started on a Gonzalo Segares give-away.

Wenger: Sanchez, Giroud will both be with Arsenal next year

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Arsene Wenger thinks Alexis Sanchez will sign a new deal at Arsenal this summer, whether the manager changes or not.

Speaking ahead of Wednesday’s visit from Leicester City, Wenger did not offer any clues as to his future with the club. He also said it does not hinge on how the Gunners finish the current campaign, and that he is working on transfers for the benefit of Arsenal regardless of his future.

[ MORE: Will Real open door for Barca? ]

That’s no surprise, given his reputation and fidelity to the club. What may surprise some is Wenger’s confidence that Sanchez will stay at the Emirates Stadium.

From Sky Sports:

“I personally think he will stay and sign. First of all he is happy here, his desire is to stay, that is what I deeply believe.

“I don’t think you would sell him to any Premier League club, that is for sure. The question is why would you sell him to another club? You want to be as strong as you can be and not strengthen the other teams.”

Wenger said both sides want to work out a deal and that the hold-up resides in agent-related matters. He also said Arsenal does not have interest in selling Olivier Giroud, who backed Wenger just over a month ago.

Title fight in Spain: Will Real slip up again?

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Barcelona’s dramatic 3-2 win over Real Madrid has set La Liga’s title race on its ear, with both clubs level on points with 75.

Real still controls its own destiny in a bid for its first league title since 2011-12, but a single loss puts Barcelona in pole position for its fourth title in five seasons.

[ RECAP: Chelsea 4-2 Saints ]

The tiebreaker is head-to-head, which Lionel Messi lifted from Real with his thrilling stoppage time thriller on Sunday at the Bernabeu.

Here are the run-ins for both sides, with Real facing a more congested schedule thanks to its status as a UEFA Champions League semifinalist.

Real Madrid

Only two of Real’s remaining five La Liga matches are at home, a boon for Barcelona considering Real boasts a strong home mark. The loss to Barca was Real’s first at the Bernabeu this season, and the Merengues only drew three matches at home (Villarreal, Eibar, Atletico Madrid).

Those home matches, however, are against teams that beat Real in the sides’ other league meetings this year, Sevilla and Valencia.

Wednesday – at Deportivo de la Coruna (16th)
Saturday – vs. Valencia (12th)
May 2 – vs. Atletico Madrid (UCL)
May 6 – at Granada (19th)
May 10 – at Atletico Madrid (UCL)
May 14 – vs. Sevilla (4th)
May 21 – at Malaga (14th)

Barcelona

Barca is home for three of its remaining five matches. The Blaugranas drew Villarreal and blew out Osasuna and Eibar ahead of the return visits.

As for the road matches, Barca has the Derbi barceloni with Espanyol, having taken the Camp Nou meeting 4-1, as well as a trip to Las Palmas (5-0 at home).

Wednesday – vs. Osasuna (20th)
Saturday – at Espanyol (9th)
May 6 – vs. Villarreal (5th)
May 14 – at Las Palmas (13th)
May 21 – vs. Eibar (8th)
May 27 – vs. Alaves (Copa del Rey Final)

The verdict

Any whiplash Real faces from schedule congestion should be offset by Barcelona’s much tougher schedule. Real could lose again, perhaps versus Sevilla, but Barca will likely finish second thanks to dropped points against Espanyol, Eibar, or Villarreal.

Premier League Weds. preview: Desperation on display

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Two London powers face a race to stay alive for their lofty season goals, while two Northeast sides see their last chances to claim hope for another year in the Premier League.

[ STREAM: All PL games here ]

That’s what’s on the docket for Wednesday’s PL matches, one day after Chelsea buried Southampton 4-2 t0 move seven points clear of Spurs in the race for the league’s 2016-17 crown.

Crystal Palace vs. Tottenham Hotspur — 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN

No team has looked better than Spurs lately, though Palace won’t be bowed by a big name or good form. Sam Allardyce‘s Eagles boast wins at Liverpool and Chelsea, as well as a home defeat of Arsenal. Those have all come in 2017, as Palace has leapt to within striking distance of the top half.

Spurs need to win at Selhurst Park to keep pace with Chelsea and sit four points back of the No. 1 spot with five matches to play. Lose, concede, and feel like last April all over again. It was a year from Tuesday that Spurs coughed up a home lead to Leicester and saw any hopes of catching Leicester fade into the sunset.

Middlesbrough vs. Sunderland — 2:45 p.m. ET

This Tees-Wear Derby oozes desperation, with Sunderland knowing it needs to win its matches-in-hand on Hull City and Swansea to have any hope of staying up, and Middlesbrough nearly as desperate.

Boro’s 24 points is three more than Sunderland, who has played one less game. Hull sits 17th with 33 points while Swansea holds 31.

Middlesbrough hasn’t won in the Premier League since Dec. 17, a run of 16 matches. Their only wins of the year are over lower league opposition, a trio of victories against Sheffield Wednesday, Accrington Stanley, and Oxford United.

Sunderland has just one league win since that same date in December, and that came at Crystal Palace. The Black Cats have lost six of eight, and look destined to join Boro in the second tier as Northeast neighbors Newcastle comes up.

(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images )

Arsenal vs. Leicester City — 2:45 p.m. ET

Did Sunday’s FA Cup semifinal win over Manchester City snap Arsenal out of its funk, or was it just a matter of Alexis Sanchez’s class squeezing a bit of excellence out of the tube?

Arsene Wenger will hope for the latter, because Arsenal’s Top Four hopes hinge on winning its matches-in-hand on Liverpool and getting significant help from Man City and Manchester United. Their opposition will also be rested, having rested since bowing out of the UEFA Champions League on April 18.

Leicester’s five match winning streak, part of Craig Shakespeare’s new manager bounce, has died down a bit. The Foxes lost at Everton and drew at Palace, and get a third tricky road test in a row at the Emirates Stadium.

Pochettino calls out Xavi for Dele Alli-Man City “lie to lie to lie”

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“He tried to destroy our focus to win because he hates me because he’s Barcelona.”

Even half-kidding, the Derby Barceloni is alive and well for longtime Espanyol man Mauricio Pochettino and Barcelona legend Xavi.

At least that’s why the latter is trying to sabotage the former’s Premier League title fight, Pochettino says.

[ RECAP: Chelsea 4-2 Saints ]

Speaking from his club team in Qatar, Xavi claimed that Manchester City is going to bid high for Spurs’ young star Dele Alli.

Tottenham boss Pochettino says that’s just not true. Pochettino was joking a bit when he answered questions on the topic, but then told a story about Xavi diving for a penalty in the derby. Here are a few of his thoughts, from The Telegraph:

“It wasn’t a penalty but Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored for Barcelona and they won the game. After in the replay it was very funny because it was clear no one touched him. Come on! It goes from lie to lie to lie.”

“He is working for Manchester City, maybe? He wants to help Guardiola and [Vincent] Kompany.”