City vs. United: Premier League will be decided in Manchester, again

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When Manchester City pasted Manchester United 6-1 last October, it was still too early in the Premier League season to know if the campaign would become a two-team race. But after Chelsea’s winter swoon took them out of title contention, England’s most decorated team (United, 19 titles) was left to defend their title against a rival who had not won the first division since 1967-68.

This year there’s no illusion that the title will be settled outside Manchester. Second place City, defending their first Premier League title, remain undefeated and have a six-point lead on Chelsea and Tottenham. United, three points clear of their rivals at the top of the league, have already won three more matches than anybody else in the league. With the exception of Chelsea’s strong start, there’s been no indication anybody can keep up with the Manchester sides, and with the teams combining for 21 wins and six draws in 30 games, there’s little hint either club will come back to the pack.

MORE: Key man in Sunday’s Manchester Derby

Early Sunday morning, the teams wage their first of two league derbies this year (8:30 a.m. Eastern kickoff), a match that you could see as one of only two big, title-relevant matches of the Premier League season. Sure, history and locality mean matches like Arsenal-Tottenham and Liverpool-Manchester United will always be important, but if you discard folklore and narrow your focus to this Premier League season, the two Manchester derbies start to look disproportionately important. Like Spain’s Clasicos.

While it will take much longer than two years to establish the type of two-tier league Spain’s evolved into, this year’s developments in the Premier League combined with the 19-point gap the Manchesters put on the league last year is noteworthy. If you look at the underlying numbers, goals scored and goals against, the numbers are even more troubling. Last year City and United put up differences of +64 and +59. The next-best mark was Arsenal and Spurs’ +25. Last year, the Premier League was Spain.

If Chelsea can’t get their management issues worked out — if Arsenal and Liverpool don’t recover and if Tottenham can’t cease their window they’ve opened for themselves — we could see a small fissure form between the Manchesters and their competition. It will be small and less entrenched than chasms that exist in Spain and (to a lesser extent, now) Ukraine, but it will soon become something England’s other powers will have to overcome.

MORE: Chelsea finally comes good in Premier League

Within the derby, Manchester United, despite their lead in the standings, finds itself trying to make up ground. Their late-season collapse this spring allowed City to win the title at their expense. Though United has recent wins over City in the FA Cup and Community Shield, the Citizens won both the teams’ Premier League meetings last season and defeated the Red Devils when the clubs met in April 2011’s FA Cup semifinal. Recent big games — the ones both teams have really wanted to win — have gone to City.

source:  There are a number of reasons to think Sunday’s meeting will be different. This time, Manchester United have Robin van Persie, the former Arsenal-man quickly becoming the focal point of Manchester United’s attack. Any doubt that the Red Devils needed a player of van Persie’s potency has been assuaged by 13 goals in 19 all-competition appearances. Add his presence to the a United team who, after losing last year’s race to their noisy neighbors, have no confusion about where their focus should lie and a City side that has struggled to regain last year’s stride may have trouble replicating last year’s dominance.

There is another side to that coin, though. For all his production with Manchester United, van Persie has not scored in his last eight matches against Manchester City. And although Nemanja Vidic could return to Alex Ferguson’s back line, Manchester United’s defense (11th in the Premier League) is among the worst competing for a major European title. It’s rare that a team so flawed can compete for a crown like the Premier League’s, but with the firepower at Ferguson’s disposal, it’s not difficult to imagine a scenario where they can best City.

And within the current landscape of the Premier League, that’s may be all either Manchester club has to do: Beat their rival. Last year, Manchester City took all six league points. Had Manchester United drawn one of those two games, the Red Devils would have won a 20th title. And already three points up on City (nine points ahead of the rest of the league), a draw may be all United needs to take control of this year’s Premier League.

Galaxy’s Cole admits he enjoys Arsenal struggles

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LA Galaxy left back Ashley Cole left Arsenal for Chelsea more than a decade ago, but that hasn’t erased the bitter memories of the departure from his boyhood club.

Cole was famously involved in a “tapping up” meeting with Chelsea without Arsenal’s permission in 2005, but signed a contract extension with the Gunners. Still, he was gone a year later in messy circumstances.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

As the most capped fullback in England’s history who boasts both Premier League and Champions League titles with Chelsea, Cole easily could rest on his own laurels and move on from the divorce.

But when asked whether he’s enjoying Arsenal’s current struggles, Cole couldn’t help himself.

“If I’m honest, yeah, I still think to this day. I laugh to myself. I had a lot of history there and I think the way I left was maybe a bit dodgy but the lack of respect they showed me as well.”

Cole accepts a share of the blame for his time ended at Arsenal, but says he doesn’t regret it. Still, his response is not a picture of class.

Next time, just laugh and say, “Next question,” Ashley.

“I’m not a bad guy” – Convicted murderer, new club defend signing

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A week ago, we brought you the story of goalkeeper Bruno Fernandes finding a new club despite a conviction for ordering the torture and murder of his mistress, whose body was then fed to dogs. The two were having a disagreement on child support.

Fernandes, 32, was set free from jail on a technicality and has since been signed by Boa Esporte in Brazil. He said he couldn’t “throw in the towel” on his career because he believed in himself.

Fans were outraged with the team, major sponsors pulled their funding, and an activist group even hacked Boa Esporte’s web page.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

And the club is digging in its heels.

Boa Esporte’s president, Rone Moraes da Costa, reacted to protests by saying he’d rather move the team than not give Fernandes a chance to resurrect his career.

As for Fernandes, he clearly is having trouble explaining why he’s getting another chance. From The Guardian:

“What happened, happened. I made a mistake, a serious one, but mistakes happens in life – I’m not a bad guy. People tried to bury my dream because of one mistake, but I asked God for forgiveness, so I’m carrying on with my career, dude. I’m starting over.”

One mistake. Wow. There are few clubs in the world which fit the bill of being the majority of fans’ least favorite team, but Boa Esporte could get there. Surely there must be more to the story?

Nothing new about the challenges facing USMNT

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This next week may define a generation of USMNT players, but only if it goes poorly.

That may sound overly dramatic, but it isn’t. The United States started 0-2 in the final round of World Cup qualifying, earned its coach a firing, and now stares down its status in the confederation.

Honduras is coming on Friday, far from a pushover. Then it’s off to Panama for another tricky tie. In a vacuum, coming up short in one of the two isn’t the end of the world, but the Yanks will be expected to take a minimum four points. Even that would be a disappointment to many.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

The crutches are gone, aside from any being used by injured players back in Germany (Bobby Wood and Fabian Johnson chief amongst them). Fifteen of Honduras’ players play domestically, and Panama isn’t much better in overall quality.

Frankly, and it’s been written before, the United States should outclass both of these foes. If Bruce Arena’s bunch doesn’t, well, it spells woe for the country’s soccer development as a whole.

For now, supporters and players have been able to cling to the thought that Jurgen Klinsmann was responsible for the Yanks’ struggles. In some ways, he most certainly was to blame for setbacks like the CONCACAF Cup loss to Mexico and the pathetic performance against Costa Rica that earned him a firing.

Several of the United States’ current elder statesmen have built legacies that can survive big hits. Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey may go down in history as the two biggest stars in program history (There will be an argument for both as No. 1 along with Landon Donovan and Claudio Reyna). DaMarcus Beasley is an all-timer, too.

Michael Bradley, Geoff Cameron, and Jozy Altidore are on track for that, too, and there’s an argument to be made the trio is already there, especially for Cameron, who’s a mainstay in the Premier League. Each has found success in Europe after getting their starts in Major League Soccer, and have etched their names into the national record books.

There’s still very little reason to believe the USMNT will miss the 2018 World Cup even with the 0-2 start. The class is just too much to consider the Yanks will finish below Panama, Honduras, and Trinidad and Tobago over the course of 10 matches (The fourth place side gets a shot at an Asian side like Saudi Arabia, UAE, or Uzbekistan in a two-legged affair).

But turning it around has to start now. The Yanks have to handle their business in these qualifiers, and make at least the Gold Cup final to build momentum toward Russia. Anything short of that is abject failure.

Again, this absolutely should happen, starting Friday. Even given the poor start, losses or even a pair of draws this week would be legitimately shocking, and set the program back ages. Howard set it up well Tuesday when he pointed out that the U.S. has gotten to points like this before, and they always belly up to the bar and outlast all comers.

A lot of fans have this nagging voice in their heads, asking nefariously, “What if they don’t?”

Podolski after golazo finale: “This is like a great movie”

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Lukas Podolski has won a EURO, a World Cup, and the Bundesliga with two different sides.

Only Lothar Matthaus and Miroslav Klose have been capped more than Germany’s Polish born Podolski, and he received a hero’s send-off from the home crowd at Germany’s 1-0 win over England on Wednesday.

And of course he sent himself off in style with a gorgeous goal.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

Podolski said there were more than 30,000 people from Cologne at the match, where he won one of his two Bundesliga titles.

“That’s when you know where you home is, and that you’ve done a lot of good, also off the pitch,” Podolski said. “That makes me very proud.”

It was a perfect night to say goodbye, and the goal made it almost surreal (Thomas Muller called it “cheesy”).

From Goal.com:

“This is like a great movie,” he told ARD. “We win 1-0 and I score the goal.

“I know I have a left foot that was probably gifted to me by God, or someone up there, and I can always rely on it. I am proud of these last 13 years.”

Feel good hit of the Spring.