Offshore drilling, England: Manchester United 3, at Manchester City 2

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Despite long spells of City dominance, Manchester United took a crucial three points from the Etihad Stadium on Sunday. Two first half goals from Wayne Rooney capped by a stoppage time winner from Robin van Persie saw the Red Devils defeat their inter-city, 3-2.

After 15 minutes of absorbing a strong start from their hosts, Manchester United again showed their best moments are capable of winning this year’s Premier League. Yet an early double Rooney was not enough to stave off a shootout, with a second half siege from Manchester City producing goals from Yaya Touré and, in the 86th minute, Pablo Zabaleta.

Luck shined on United in the final minutes as a free kick to the right of the area deflected off Samir Nasri in City’s wall. The resulting ball curved into the left side of Joe Hart’s net, giving United full points from their rival.

It was exactly the type of performance we’ve come to expect in big games from this Manchester United team: uneven, at times meek, but in the moments that mattered most, precisely executed.  While last year’s Manchester Derbies hinted City may be immune to United’s potent attack (City outscoring their neighbors 7-1), this year United has stuck the first major blow in the Premier League title race.

With the win, the Red Devils sit six points clear in England.

Man of the Match: While the second goal was one most players should finish, few could replicate Wayne Rooney’s contributions to the opener. He clearly deserves credit for a shot which, pulled back across his body, froze Joe Hart as it rolled just inside the left post from 18 yards. But the shot would have never gotten off were it not for a deft touch on a hard-hit pass from Ashley Young, Rooney opening is right foot to perfectly trap a ball into the space he needed to get clear of three closing defenders.

Despite spending most of the season in the shadow of Robin van Persie, Rooney has quietly put up a prolific start to the season. After today’s tallies, the United talisman is up to six goals and seven assists in league action. Fourteen goals and 16 assists (his current pace) would be a spectacular year for the ever-evolving star.

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Threesome of knowledge: What we learned

United was built for this: “Against the run of play” was the common refrain after Manchester United opened their account. City had looked better, the analysis held, forgetting United always looks like this in big games.

Through most of a Premier League season, United’s skill on the ball can dominate games while the Red Devils play some of the best soccer in the world. But against teams like City and Chelsea, United have often conceded control with the hope their speed and execution will provide them with decisive chances in transition.

That’s exactly what happened today. When David de Gea came of his line to claim a through ball in the 15th minute, his first instinct was to get the ball back into play as soon as possible. A rolled pass to Patrice Evra, a chip to Ashley Young, a chest pass from Robin van Persie, and Young is free. Within seconds, the ball is in the back of Joe Hart’s next, all built off an innocuous pass from De Gea.

This is how United will win big games. Only Chelsea can match their skill in attack. Nobody can match their speed, depth, or variety.

City may have been the better side in the first quarter hour, but I doubt Alex Ferguson was worried about it.

Roberto Mancini’s tempting fate: With Manchester City flaming out of Europe after finishing last in their Champions League group, some contend manager Roberto Mancini’s not long for the job at the Etihad. Today, Mancini stoked those flames.

He deserves credit for helping to bring his team back, but a series of curious lineup decisions are sure to draw questions:

  • Mario Balotelli started over Carlos Tevez and was then removed after trying a backheel. If you’re not prepared to live with Balotelli’s idiosyncrasies, don’t start him. Even if you’re fine with his theatrics, the contention Balotelli should start a Manchester Derby over Tévez is difficult to defend.
  • Matija Nastasic continues to start at left-center half over Joleon Lescott. That’s defensible enough, even if breaking up the central defense tandem that won last year’s Premier League is problematic. But when Vincent Kompany got hurt and Kolo Touré came on over Lescott, you started to wonder what Lescott’s done to fall so far in Mancini’s regard.
  • Is there ever a reason to take Yaya Touré off and leave Barry on? That’s what happened in the 84th minute as Mancini brought Eden Dezko on. Perhaps fitness was a concern.

Moments, not spells: Perhaps it’s the elevation of all things Barcelona that has led us to revere spells of control over moments of execution. You would have thought Inter Milan’s 2010 Champions League title would have dissuaded us of the notion, but it may not be that simple. There is something innately logical about assuming the team with the ball is in control, even if that control is often inconsequential.

This is why critics have often undervalued United’s recent teams. They often look second best. They don’t control play as often as other teams. Their midfield seems thin and undermanned. By the standards we’ve come to pursue in the modern, midfield-centric game, United is lacking.

Like José Mourinho as he bossed Inter to that Champions League title (beating Barcelona along the way), Ferguson understands the leverage in those moments of transition where an attacking team can have a rare absolute advantage. In getting players like Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young and Shinji Kagawa (out injured on Sunday), he’s built his team to maximize those moments.

On Sunday, that philosophy earned United a crucial win. Maybe they didn’t control the match, but they control the points.

Packaged for takeaway

  • Rio Ferdinand was hit above the left eye by a coin thrown from the Eithad stands as he celebrated United’s third goal. With blood trickling down his face, it was initially unclear he’d be able to finish the game’s final minutes. Just a reminder: It’s still within the power of the crowd’s worst person to ruin a classic match.
  • Jonny Evans appeared to strain his right hamstring while being taken down by Balotelli in the first half. He had to come off for Chris Smalling.
  • David De Gea, who may have only started because Anders Lindegaard’s partner went into labor before the game, gave a strong performance. Against a City team that doesn’t rely on crossing, De Gea should probably start, regardless.
  • It was another game that worked against Joe Hart’s best goalkeeper in the world case. Then again, he’s not the one making it.

Black Friday sale on NBC Sports Gold

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Time for new chapter in Liverpool, Chelsea rivalry

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Liverpool host Chelsea at Anfield on Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com) with the Premier League rivals aiming to hunt down runaway leaders Manchester City.

Expect a raucous, fiery atmosphere as these foes lock horns with a changing dynamic to their growing rivalry.

[ VIDEO: PL score predictions, previews ]

Since Rafael Benitez and Jose Mourinho both landed at English soccer at Liverpool and Chelsea respectively in 2004-05, there’s been an extra edge to games between Liverpool and Chelsea as they often battled for the Premier League and Champions League titles.

Yet in recent years this rivalry has subsided a little, with both clubs enduring roller-coaster seasons with title challenges mixed in with disappointing campaigns and managerial changes.

Now, both teams are challenging in the Champions League (Chelsea are in the last 16, while Liverpool will certainly join them in 10 days time) and both are in a very similar position in the chasing pack behind Man City. With young, exciting squads the future is now looking bright for both teams.

Both also have talented, passionate managers in Jurgen Klopp and Antonio Conte who are in their second full seasons in the Premier League and both still have similar targets each season: to win major trophies. Heading into Saturday’s clash Chelsea sit in third place with 25 points, while Liverpool are in fifth and three points behind.

The main reason this rivalry has lost some oomph in recent years is because Chelsea have continued to add silverware to their trophy cabinet (the Champions League in 2011-12, plus the Premier League title in 2014-15 and 2016-17) and Liverpool haven’t won anything since the League Cup in 2011-12, while the Champions League triumph under Benitez in 2005 particularly got under Mourinho’s skin after the “ghost goal” from Luis Garcia.

Yet it now feels like both clubs are ready to challenge consistently for the PL title and they’ve moved on from glorious playing eras as legendary figures such as Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, John Terry, Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard.

Will this rivalry reach the heights of Mourinho and Benitez clashing on the sidelines during Champions League semifinals at Anfield, or the former then riling home fans during his second stint at Chelsea as his under-strength side ruined Liverpool’s title hopes back in 2014?

That day on April 27, 2014 (Liverpool fans do not need reminding) reignited this rivalry as a disheveled, unshaven Mourinho — he had been feeling unwell in the lead up to the game and was focusing on a UCL semifinal v Atletico Madrid — ran down the sideline to celebrate the victory, pounding the Chelsea badge on his chest like a madman in his tracksuit. He quickly retreated to the dressing room as vitriol arrived from home supporters who had seen their legendary captain, Gerrard, slip to gift Chelsea a soft goal and deal a hammer blow to Liverpool’s hopes of winning a first league title since 1990.

Getting the train from London to Liverpool, and back, that day, I remember scuffles breaking out between rival fans at Liverpool train station as police intervened. The atmosphere was toxic as this rivalry once again gathered steam. It wasn’t quite the heyday of Benitez vs. Mourinho, but it was getting there. The divide between the London clubs and those in the North West of England in the PL have always had an extra edge with geography and inter-city pride, plus the North-South divide in England, playing a big part.

But since Mourinho left Chelsea (for the second time) this rivalry now has a different feel to it. Last season it was Liverpool trying to play the spoiler for Chelsea’s title bid as they drew at Anfield in January with a wild Diego Costa winning, then failing with a late penalty kick which would’ve grabbed victory for the Blues. The flickers of a fiery rivalry are still very much there.

Sadio Mane vs. Eden Hazard. Mohamed Salah vs. Alvaro Morata. Philippe Coutinho vs. N'Golo Kante. Those are the new heavyweight rivalries in a clash which was one of the main events in the Premier League just over a decade ago. It’s importance is building once again under Klopp and Conte who have so far kept things respectful in their exchanges.

It feels like it is time for a new chapter to be written in this rivalry and Saturday evening under the floodlights at a packed out Anfield seems like the perfect place to do that.


Team news

Liverpool have Joel Matip back in training and he could be available to return in central defense but Emre Can is a major doubt in midfield.

Chelsea’s Victor Moses continues his recovery from a hamstring issue and could be on the bench but Michy Batshuayi will likely remain sidelined.


What they’re saying

Jurgen Klopp on Chelsea: “If we can create a special atmosphere that would help us. Our job is to stay really consistent. Chelsea, what a team, champions of last year, it will be a really tough job. They lost decisive players with Matic and Costa. With Chelsea last year, everything worked. They didn’t need many chances to win a game. It’s difficult to play the same season again, especially when you lose players.”

Antonio Conte on Chelsea not having enough rest before the Liverpool game after playing at Qarabag: “It was a problem to land. I think to get to your house at six o’clock in the morning is not simple to then rest and recover. We’ve only had one day to prepare for a big game and I think this is not right, I must be honest. But we have to do this and today we’ve had a good training session and we’ve tried to prepare for the game against Liverpool very well. I think to only have one day to prepare for a big game, especially to only have one day to rest is not right for all the teams, not only for Chelsea.”


Prediction

I’m expecting big things from this game, and the atmosphere, at Anfield. Both teams are in fine goalscoring form heading and the vast array of attacking talents on display has everything set up for an enthralling battle. With Hazard, Morata and Willian purring for Chelsea, plus Salah, Roberto Firmino and Mane on fire for Liverpool, you can expect one thing: goals. I’m going for a 2-2 draw.

Statement released on Niasse’s ban for “deception”

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The reasons behind Oumar Niasse‘s ban for “deception of a match official” (diving, or simulation, to you and I) have been explained.

[ MORE: Toffees hammered by Atalanta ]

Niasse, 27, became the first player in Premier League history to be banned retrospectively for simulation with new rules which came into place in May being used.

Everton forward Niasse went down easily in the penalty box after slight contact from Scott Dann in the first half of their 2-2 draw at Crystal Palace on Saturday and referee Anthony Taylor awarded a penalty kick. However, Niasse was then retrospectively handed a two-game ban for simulation.

Niasse and Everton appealed the ban but the FA upheld the decision from an Independent Commission made up of a former professional player, referee and official, who revealed they were “unanimous” in charging him with diving.

Below is a look at how they came to make the decision.

“The Commission were unanimous that the video footage gave clear and overwhelming evidence that the player had exaggerated the effect of a normal contact in order to deceive the referee.

“The Commission noted that there was contact between Scott Dann and Mr Niasse but the Commission considered the contact to be normal, fair and expected contact in the situation that arose with Mr Niasse ‘taking on’ Mr Dann. The Commission unanimously agree that the nature of the contact made by Scott Dan was minimal in nature and would not have thrown Mr Niasse off balance and knock him down in the way that Mr Niasse portrayed it to have done.

“To the minds of the Commission members the movements of Mr Niasse’s body, in particular the arching of the back and the collapsing of both legs, were simply not consistent with the amount of force exerted upon him by Mr Dann and in exaggerating the effect of the contact made between himself and Mr Dann, Mr Niasse deceived the referee and this led to a penalty being awarded by the referee.”

This decision is truly groundbreaking in the PL.

Last season 22 players were booked for simulation in Premier League games, so this new ruling could see plenty of two-game bans dished out until players finally stop taking a tumble to try and win a penalty kick or free kick.

Of course, there is still a certain amount of subjectivity to all of this but the FA and PL have shown they will take a tough stance against simulation. Good on them. Now, can they keep it up and be consistent in dishing out these bans? That’s the big challenge.

Mourinho slams critics, reveals team news; Fellaini update

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Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United are almost back to full strength but he has a few concerns.

The Red Devils host Brighton & Hove Albion at Old Trafford on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) with Mourinho now having just a handful of injury concerns.

Long-term absentees Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Marcos Rojo have all returned to action over the past week, while Mourinho has a small defensive problem with Eric Bailly and Phil Jones out for the visit of the newly-promoted Seagulls.

“They are out. But we are okay because we have [Chris] Smalling, [Marcos] Rojo and [Victor] Lindelof,” Mourinho said.

He also said that Pogba isn’t yet able to play a full 90 minutes as he continue his recovery from a hamstring injury, while Zlatan is improving all the time after jumping off the bench in the victory over Newcastle United last weekend and the midweek defeat at Basel in the UEFA Champions League.

“I prefer him [Ibrahimovic] on the pitch than off the pitch,” Mourinho said. “On the pitch, he’s another option for us and he’s an option of quality. His physicality and his intelligence, the way he moves, the way he plays. But he needs time. We managed to give him 15/20 minutes in both matches, he needs more of that, so hopefully, tomorrow, we play him again.”

Mourinho also took exception to a question about the criticism his team receives about their defensive style of play, with the Portuguese coach pointing towards United’s superb home record this season.

“I don’t know who is more ambitious than us,” Mourinho said. “We played against Newcastle with Pogba, Rashford, Martial, Mata, Lukaku, the full backs are not full backs, everybody knows they are wingers, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young. So, I don’t know what you want.”

United have won all six PL home games this season and have scored 19 goals, conceding just once. So, yeah, he has a point but the only real test they’ve had so far at home was against Tottenham Hotspur.

Aside from an injury update and hitting back at critics, Mourinho also gave an update on Fellaini’s contract situation and revealed he is concerned the Belgian midfielder may leave.

Fellaini, 30, is out of contract at the end of the season and Mourinho has praised the lanky midfielder on numerous occasions over the past few months. Is he worried Fellaini will leave for nothing?

“Yeah,” Mourinho said. “This is a discussion between the player and the board. I’m not involved in contracts, in deals, and I respect both – I respect the player because he has the right to decide his future. So I just wait wishing they will have an understanding, but it’s out of my control.”