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Offshore drilling, England: at Manchester United 2, Arsenal 1

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Arsenal’s visit to Old Trafford has become one of the most anticipated matches of the Premier League season, but by the end of today’s game in Manchester, onlookers could be forgiven for silently begging for referee Mike Dean’s whistle to put them out of their numbed misery. Thanks to an early goal from Robin van Persie and an uninspired Arsenal (that failed to register a shot for 92 minutes), Manchester United walked to a 2-1 win over their muted rivals, temporarily going top of the Premier League.

Though the final score hints the match was close, Santi Cazorla’s shutout-defying 94th minute score only obscured the huge gap between the teams. Manchester United kept Arsenal at arm’s length all day, their passive defending offering no easy answers for a Gunners side unwilling to work their way back into the title race.

In a performance that should provoke Arsenal’s annual identity crisis, Manchester United made another claim to being the Premier League’s best team, even if they’ll likely sit second by day’s end.

Man of the Match: In his first game against his former club, Robin van Persie declined to celebrate his third minute goal, a sign of respect for a team that helped build his star. But that star burned Arsenal on Saturday, taking advantage of a third minute Thomas Vermaelen error with a pinpoint finish far post past Vito Mannone, giving United a lead they’d never relinquish.

Having already scored eight goals this season, the former Arsenal captain looks set to challenge’s last year’s 30-goal plateau. At least, we thought is was a plateau.

Threesome of knowledge: What we learned

Manchester United’s got something figured out, for now.

So it seems Alex Ferguson’s settled on a first choice XI, starting the same team today that he used to derail Chelsea last Sunday. Ashley Young, a surprise starter at Stamford Bridge, looks to have claimed a spot on the left of midfield, with Antonio Valencia the man on the right. Combined with van Persie and Wayne Rooney, the lineup gives United the fastest team in the league, one that’s among the world’s most potent in transition, even if the team’s likely to change once Shinji Kagawa returns.

Arsenal answered any lingering questions.

The Gunners looked so strong at the beginning of the season. They weren’t scoring as often as we’re used to, but an attack orchestrated by Cazorla and a surprisingly stingy defense hinted Arsenal was close to contending.

Not so. Arsenal is as far behind Chelsea and the Manchesters as they’ve ever been in the Arsene Wenger-era, and unfortunately (if predictably), the problem appears to be mental. There’s no reason Wenger’s personnel can’t compete with the league’s big three, but there’s little in their approach that suggests Arsenal see themselves on the same level as the title contenders.

United still a thing of beauty with the ball.

For Arsenal, it was a low number. Fifty-two. That was the percentage of possession they held on Saturday, a remarkably small fraction considering Manchester United’s tactics. As they did on Sunday, the Red Devils remained content to lay off their opposition until they made a move toward the attacking third. Then, United would start to work, and while their counterattack was not as authoritative Saturday as it was against at Stamford Bridge, their style combined a level of precision and decisiveness that’s otherwise unseen in the Premier League. While Chelsea is capable of playing some entrancing soccer, Manchester United may employ the most attractive style in England.

Packaged for takeaway

  • The scoreline would have been worse had Wayne Rooney converted his late first half spot kick. Instead, he nailed the left post. Van Persie should get the honors going forward.
  • Jack Wilshere, in his second game back after over 500 days out, saw red after an ill-timed lunge at Patrice Evra drew a second booking.
  • Evra, who came into the year two goals in six-and-a-half Premier League seasons, scored his second goal of the campaign, heading home the match-winner after he was left unmarked on a 67th minute cross from Rooney.
  • Central midfield is not going to be a strength for United, but Michael Carrick’s bounce back from last year’s disappointing season has made a big difference. Whether he’s partnered by Tom Cleverley (as he as today), Shinji Kagawa, or perhaps eventually Darren Fletcher, a return to form from Carrick will help augment United’s greatest weakness.
  • For a team that came into the game with the league’s best defense, Arsenal’s center halves were surprisingly poor, particularly Thomas Vermaelen.

Watch Live: Chelsea vs. West Brom (Lineups, Stream)

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 22:  Diego Costa of Chelsea and Joleon Lescott of West Brom battle for the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and West Bromwich Albion at Stamford Bridge on November 22, 2014 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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Chelsea hosts West Bromwich Albion from Stamford Bridge (Watch live, 7:00 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) as the Blues look to extend their eight-match win streak.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE HERE

The Blues make one change from last weekend’s 3-1 come-from-behind victory over Manchester City as Cesc Fabregas makes way in the starting XI for Nemanja Matic.

Antonio Conte‘s side will be opposed by a West Brom side that is unbeaten in their last four Premier League matches. The Baggies remain unchanged from last week’s 3-1 win over Watford as the side looks to move above eighth in the table.

LINEUPS

Chelsea: Courtois; Azpilicueta, David Luiz, Cahill (c); Moses, Kante, Matic, Alonso; Pedro, Diego Costa, Hazard. Subs: Begovic, Aina, Ivanovic, Chalobah, Fabregas, Willian, Batshuayi.

West Brom: Foster; Dawson, McAuley, Evans, Nyom; Yacob, Fletcher (c); Brunt, Morrison, Phillips; Rondon. Subs: Palmer; Olsson, Robson-Kanu, Gardner, McClean, Galloway, Chadli.

“Pretty unreal, a fairy tale” — Alonso, Marshall celebrate Sounders title

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TORONTO — Talk about penalty kicks all you want, and definitely talk about that save, but Seattle’s formative heart kept Toronto FC’s vaunted attack off the scoreboard to win its first MLS Cup final.

Veterans Chad Marshall, Osvaldo Alonso, Stefan Frei, and Roman Torres simply got the job done against Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and the high-flying Reds.

“We knew what a great offensive team they are,” Marshall said. “Giovinco and Jozy are incredible. The amount of goals they put up this postseason is pretty ridiculous, so to keep them off the board for 120 minutes is incredible.”

[ MLS CUP: Seattle wins in PKs | 3 things ]

The man in front of him, Alonso, was a prime reason for that. Countless connecting passes and perfect spacing limited TFC’s chances with the ball. After an MVP caliber season, you could argue that Alonso deserved just as much of a shout for MLS Cup MVP as winner Frei.

“In the final you have to give everything you have to win,” Alonso said. “I step on the field to play for my team, play for myself, and play for my family. And I think I did that.”

Both Alonso and Marshall spoke of the moments following Torres’ match-winning PK, as the Sounders crew flew down to pitch to celebrate in front of a rave green and blue visitors section high above BMO Field.

[ MORE: Bradley apologizes to fans ]

[ MORE: Altidore, Frei on that save ]

“I think I threw my back out on the run to Roman, and he flew right by me,” Marshall said. “It was just nuts. I lost my voice in a matter of 20 seconds. It’s just so exciting.”

Alonso was filled with pride for the fans at the game, and the ones back in Seattle who stood by the Sounders after a midseason coaching change.

“They deserved this, the trophy, because they are always there for us,” Alonso said. “Even when we were down at the bottom of the table. This trophy means a lot for me.”

Marshall admitted the words weren’t coming to him, even an hour after the game.

“I don’t know if I can. It’s an incredible feeling, from where we in July, the Kansas City game, to this moment right now, it’s pretty unreal, a fairy tale.”

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Bradley lauds “fearless” teammates after heart-wrenching MLS Cup loss

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TORONTO — Michael Bradley paused to collect himself, several times actually, before apologizing to Toronto FC’s supporters.

The game of football, with its soaring highs and gutting lows, was the latter now. TFC had dominated Seattle over a lackluster 120 minutes, Bradley engineered several big interventions and some delightful balls that didn’t have an end product.

[ MLS CUP: Seattle wins in PKs | 3 things ]

Much of that won’t be remembered, though, because Bradley passed his penalty kick right into the path of a waiting Stefan Frei. Surrounded by reporters in the TFC locker room, Bradley chose his words carefully.

“When you put everything you have into something, when you come in every day ready to pour your heart and soul into something, the highs are amazing and emotional and incredible in a positive ways,” Bradley said. “And the setbacks… hit you hard. Every guy here is going to have to take the time to get over this one, to let it hurt, let it frustrate you, let it anger you.

“It’s not for the weak, and you see that on nights like tonight.”

[ MORE: Altidore, Frei on that save ]

Bradley was one of the final men to emerge from the showers at BMO Field, and he answered every question with brutal honesty.

“On behalf of the team, we can only thank every person in this city for their support and for the passion and the emotion and the energy that they put into this, together with us,” he said. “I’m sick to my stomach that we couldn’t reward them with the biggest trophy tonight.”

In defeat, it was easy to see why TFC’s locker room is drawn to its captain. Bradley shirked nothing, answering the tough questions and humoring those who would lob softballs about his family.

Among the former was this response, one of those quotes that moves a team into formation.

“The margins are so small, and on nights like this you have no choice but to go for it,” he said. “We talked about having a group of guy who were gonna, on the biggest of nights, be fearless and go after things in an aggressive way. And we did that. We were strong, brave, and went after the game in a really, really hard away from the first minute right up until the 120th minute.”

That Bradley missed a PK will howl to the moon in Toronto to the wee hours of this Sunday morning, and his critics will be happy to join in. But as the 29-year-old prepares for a winter that could see him head across an ocean before returning for World Cup qualifying and another MLS season, Toronto can be happy to put its faith — and its backbone — in No. 4.

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Altidore, Frei react to “that save” after Sounders claim MLS Cup

TORONTO, ONTARIO - DECEMBER 10:  Stefan Frei #24 of the Seattle Sounders stops Michael Bradley #4 of the Toronto FC during the penalty kick phase during the 2016 MLS Cup at BMO Field on December 10, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Seattle defeated Toronto in the 6th round of extra time penalty kicks. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
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TORONTO — When it came down to it, Jozy Altidore and Toronto FC were inches away from becoming MLS Cup champions.

The man who walked away with MLS Cup MVP was the reason they didn’t land the title.

[ WATCH: Frei’s big save ]

Deep in extra time, Altidore leapt high to loft a header toward the far post. Frei adjusted his body for one dramatic lunge, just slapping the ball toward Roman Torres for a clearance.

“(Altidore) does the right thing because he goes against the way that I’m coming from, and that point you just move your feet as quick as you can see what’s possible,” Frei said.

Altidore thought it was in.

“I thought so,” he said. “It was a tough ball to begin with. … It was a hell of a save. At the end of the day you’ve got to pull off something special.”

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