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.

Serie A: Juve keep winning to remain 1 point back of Napoli

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TURIN, Italy (AP) Juventus closed the gap on Serie A leader Napoli back to just one point as the six-time defending champion eased past Genoa 1-0 on Monday.

Douglas Costa scored in the 16th minute, the first conceded by Genoa in five league matches. It was a less than convincing performance from Juventus but it was never really troubled, as goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny – standing in for the still-injured Gianluigi Buffon – was little more than a spectator.

“What was important was to win,” Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri said. “At the end there was a bit of nervousness because we were lacking in energy a bit.

“We could have finished off the match in the first half, and again with a couple of occasions after the break. We didn’t manage to so compliments to Genoa.”

The battle for the Serie A title is shaping into a two-horse race. Juventus moved 10 points clear of third-placed Lazio, although the capital side has a match in hand.

“The season is still long and all those who are behind us can still get back into the race,” Allegri said. “It was important to stay in Napoli’s slipstream.”

Juventus needed to win after Napoli beat Atalanta 1-0 on Sunday.

Allegri’s side started brightly and had an early chance to take the lead but Genoa goalkeeper Mattia Perin did well to keep out a free kick from specialist Miralem Panic.

However, it did not take much longer to strike. Douglas Costa passed out left to Mario Mandzukic, who played a delightful return ball for the Brazil midfielder to slot into the bottom left corner.

League Cup semi: Man City take 2-1 lead into 2nd leg vs. Bristol

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Manchester City can move one step closer on Tuesday to claiming their first of four potential trophies this season, when Pep Guardiola‘s men take on Bristol City in the second leg of the League Cup semifinal.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday ]

After coming back to beat the Robins in the first leg at home, Man City must now go on the road and take care of business to reach the Feb. 25 final at Wembley Stadium. As he has done so many times — and so famously — in the sky blue of City, Sergio Aguero grabbed the late winner (91st minute — WATCH HERE) 14 days ago.

For a few not-so-insignificant periods of the game, Bristol were very much the aggressors and appeared more likely to make the score 2-0 than for City to get back to 1-1. Bobby Reid converted from the penalty spot in the 44th minute after her was brought down under John Stones‘ wild, sliding tackle. Kevin De Bruyne leveled things up 10 minutes into the second half, setting the stage for Aguero’s late heroics.

[ MORE: Alexis-for-Mkhi swap complete | De Bruyne’s new contract ]

Since the first leg on Jan. 9, City have failed in their bid to finish the PL season with an unbeaten record before bouncing back to beat Newcastle United on the weekend, courtesy of a hat trick from Aguero — Guardiola quotes, from Sport24:

“I said many times it was going to happen, we can lose, so (it is) important the reaction we have. Still we have 42 points to play (for). It is 14 games. It is a lot of games to play and difficult games like Saturday and like Liverpool. It is important to show the team is still there but I don’t have the feeling we give up.

“We want to go through to the final in the (League) Cup and the FA Cup, so (we have) a lot of games but I think the people have the desire to keep going, to keep going, to keep going.”

[ MORE: One dream January signing for each top-six side ]

Bristol, meanwhile, have fallen on hard times: it’s been nearly a month (Boxing Day, to be specific — five losses, one draw) since Lee Johnson’s side last won a game in any competition, and they’ve fallen from second to fifth in the Championship table — Johnson quotes, from the Guardian:

“We don’t want to be brave losers, we want to compete to win. It’s up to the players to be focused and tactically aware, and who knows what will happen if we can show the same quality as we have shown in the previous rounds?

“We have to make sure we’re really bold. If you’re going to deliver a corner, do it like you mean it. I’d rather fail bold than fail timid. We know we have to score. I hope Pep picks his absolute best team and we can give them a right go. I’m not sure you could go and play an under-23 side against us at the moment and I think he’ll know that.”

The winner of Arsenal versus Chelsea (0-0 after the first leg) awaits in the final.

The 2 Robbies: Alexis-Mkhitaryan Swap Becomes Reality

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Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe react to the Alexis Sanchez-Henrikh Mkhitaryan swap deal between Arsenal and Manchester United finally becoming reality (0:20), Swansea’s stunning 1-0 victory over Liverpool (9:20), Southampton’s much-needed draw with Spurs (22:30) and Watford’s decision to part ways with Marco Silva (36:20). The gents end the show sharing their memories of the late English striker, Cyrille Regis (39:45).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

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Inter Milan sign Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan

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MILAN (AP) Inter Milan completed the signing of Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan until the end of the season, with a view to a permanent move.

Inter can sign the Brazil international permanently for $43 million plus $3.7 million in bonuses, and said on Monday that option “must be taken up before the end of the season.”

Rafinha, who was born in Sao Paulo, had been at Barcelona since 2006, when he joined its youth team. He spent the 2013-14 season on loan at Celta Vigo.

After nine months out after surgery on his right knee, he made his first appearance of the season last week as a late substitute in Barcelona’s Copa del Rey defeat at Espanyol.

“It’s an important stage in my life,” he said, “and I had a lot of desire to approach this new phase in my career.”

Inter has slipped to fourth in Serie A, 11 points behind leader Napoli.

It could slip out of the Champions League places if Roma wins its match in hand on Wednesday.

“I hope to play in as many matches as possible and help the team to reach our objective which is Champions League qualification,” Rafinha said.