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.

Arena reacts to USMNT draw, expects CONCACAF fight to end

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Bruce Arena didn’t enjoy watching Tuesday’s 1-1 draw between the United States and Panama, but he’s not upset with the result.

“The referee didn’t blow his whistle too much, and that’s the way the game looked for 90 minutes,” Arena said.

[ MORE: Player ratings | 3 things ]

Arena’s Yanks struggled to find their flow in the draw, ravaged by injuries to their back line. Arena praised his back four for their performance in difficult circumstances on the road with new teammates.

And he’s feeling a lot better than a week ago, when the U.S. had zero points and sat last in the table.

[ WATCH: Full match replay (Spanish) ]

“We’re obviously in better shape with four points in two games. We’ve made progress. Every game in qualifying is going to be critical for every team. Everyone’s in it. It’s going to be a battle for the second, third, and fourth spots.”

The Americans’ next World Cup qualifier is June 8 against Trinidad and Tobago before a June 11 road trip to Azteca to face Mexico.

Panama 1-1 USMNT: Ugly, scrappy point for both sides

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The United States will finish the international break in the Hex’s fourth place after a 1-1 draw at Panama in World Cup qualifying on Tuesday.

Clint Dempsey scored off a feed from Christian Pulisic to give the U.S. a brief 1-0 lead, and Gabriel Gomez leveled the score before halftime.

The Americans’ next World Cup qualifier is June 8 against Trinidad and Tobago before a June 11 road trip to Azteca to face Mexico.

[ MORE: Player ratings | 3 things ]

Here’s the Hex table as it stands, with the U.S. on pace for a playoff spot against Asia’s playoff winner:

Mexico — 10 points
Costa Rica — 7 points
Panama — 5 points
———————
USMNT — 4 points
———————-
Honduras — 4 points
Trinidad and Tobago — 3 points

[ WATCH: Full match replay (Spanish) ]

The first 10 minutes were a bit frenetic, with the U.S. focused on adventurous first touch passes when it managed to earn the ball from Panama.

That feel wasn’t aided by the officiating, as Cesar Ramos was inconsistent in a very physical opening quarter-hour (and never pulled a single card).

Felipe Baloy flashed a header over the cross bar off a 16th minute corner kick as he lost Jozy Altidore and nodded back across goal. It was a bit of set piece foreshadowing, as Arena has yet to fix a long-held USMNT problem.

Christian Pulisic was fired up when Luis Tejada shoved him to the turf in the 20th minute.

Tim Ream bailed out Jorge Villafana, who wasn’t as composed and smart as his Friday versus Panama, sliding to divert Armando Cooper’s cross for a corner kick.

Jermaine Jones cued up Pulisic moments later, but the youngster had to wait for a bounding ball to settle before Panama conceded a corner. That opportunity was wasted by an overly aggressive Gonzalez, who was called for a foul before the ball arrived in the 18.

Howard saw his first danger and averted it when Alberto Quintero shook Zusi to rip a shot on frame. It was 0-0 after 32 minutes.

Then, the breakthrough. Dempsey moved to within a goal of Landon donovan’s all-time mark thanks to Pulisic, who cooked Felipe Baloy and held off Roman Torres before laying off to the veteran. 1-0, 39′.

The lead lasted all of three minutes, as Gomez pounced on a loose ball with the Yanks’ back line at sixes and sevens off a long throw-in. Gomez turned off Jermaine Jones and lost Villafana to bury his chance behind Howard. 1-1, 44′.

The second half began with more chunky play until Villafana blazed down the left wing on an overlapping run to cross for Pulisic, whose shot was forced out for a corner which led to nothing.

Dempsey then turned a Michael Bradley free kick to a waiting Jaime Penedo as the Yanks started to refind their flow.

Panama found a doorstep chance when Torres nodded down for Tejada, but Howard made an exceptional nether regions “leg” save to keep it 1-1.

Arena introduced Alejandro Bedoya for Darlington Nagbe with 20 minutes to play, a move that was a testament to the physical nature of the game.

Fittingly, it was creative work from Pulisic that helped the U.S. win a corner kick soon after, though Penedo claimed the offering.

More chances came Panama’s way, as the U.S. spent much of the late stages desperately clearing loose balls. On another night, with better finishing from Tejada, the Yanks would’ve been sunk.

Three takeaways from the USMNT’s 1-1 draw at Panama

AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco
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What did we learn from the United States’ 1-1 draw in Panama City on Wednesday?

For one thing, that the coach isn’t going to matter without a number of your very best players.

[ MORE: Match recap | Player ratings ]

The USMNT saw precious few moments of brilliance from its injury-ravaged side, saved by its soon-to-be all-time leading scorer, its 18-year-old star attacker, and its legendary goalkeeper.

But mainly, we saw that you can change the boss, but you need better performances to make a difference.

Limits of depth tested in ugly affair

Bruce Arena was without his best center back pairing thanks to injury, and you could argue he was without his best back four if you see Fabian Johnson as a left back (John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, DeAndre Yedlin, and Johnson).

The U.S. also couldn’t pair Bobby Wood with Jozy Altidore or Clint Dempsey, and lost Sebastian Lletget to injury on Friday. Timmy Chandler has rarely thrived with the USMNT, but it certainly would’ve been nice if Arena had called him up for the second match alone (He was suspended Friday for yellow card accumulation).

Given the above, this was not a pretty match. You just have to hope this isn’t the result that keeps them from Russia.

Mexico, revisited (What game plan?)

This might be an unpopular take, but Tuesday’s loss was nothing more than the performance put forth against Mexico in Columbus.

The main differences? Tim Howard was there to make a tremendous save, and Panama is nowhere near to the level of El Tri.

[ WATCH: Full match replay (Spanish) ]

The Yanks didn’t have a great plan other than to outwork Panama. This isn’t a big knock on the coach’s tactics given the lack of starting caliber players noted above, but once Panama flooded the middle of the pitch with fouls and tight tackles, an answer wasn’t provided by the players or the coach.

Plan B hasn’t been a U.S. strong suit for a long time, perhaps back to the finer moments of the Bob Bradley era. Arena got away with one on Tuesday.

Rough road ahead

This is something we know, but my was it reinforced: Winning CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers at home is a necessity, because there’s carnage and bad pitches on the road.

Perhaps that could’ve changed if referee Cesar Ramos brought a yellow card out for either team at any point in the proceedings. Christian Pulisic and Darlington Nagbe were fouled as part of Panama’s game plan, and the Yanks’ beleaguered defense went with a similar plan as the sloppy match wore into the waning moments.

The U.S. is still in control of its own World Cup destiny, of course, but simply must handle its business in remaining home matches against Trinidad and Tobago, Panama, and Costa Rica. T&T is next, and anything other than three points sends them into Azteca in a bad, bad way.

Player ratings from the USMNT’s 1-1 draw in Panama

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Player ratings reverted to old form after Tuesday’s 1-1 draw in Panama City, though fortunately one of the other U.S. tropes is dead.

That’s because “Christian Pulisic is the future” can officially be moved into “Christian Pulisic is the present”.

[ MORE: Match recap | 3 things ]

The Borussia Dortmund teenager again manufactured the United States’ best moment, feeding Clint Dempsey for the Yanks’ lone goal.

Starting XI

Tim Howard  — 7 — Don’t know what he’s supposed to do on the goal, but his jewels save to deny Luis Tejada could be a World Cup saver.

Jorge Villafana  — 4 — One of the many star men from the win over Honduras was too adventurous and less composed. Bad combo.

Omar Gonzalez  — 4 — I say this in a way that ignores Timmy Chandler’s fine work in the Bundesliga: Is Gonzalez going to be Bruce Arena’s Chandler? Hopefully this is the last time he has to start.

Tim Ream — 5 — Had a bad time on the goal, and made several bad plays. But it’s hard to get a read on the Fulham’s man night because he bailed out Gonzalez and Villafana on a number of occasions.

Graham Zusi  — 5 — Gets bumped up a point for handling a very difficult situation, still adapting to right back in a match where Panama’s tactics were to attack his side. A better second half than the first.

Michael Bradley  — 6 — Nothing exceptional from the captain, but still an upgrade from his form under Jurgen Klinsmann. A little too deep in the formation on the evening, but that could’ve been the plan?

Jermaine Jones  (Off 75′) — 5 — Ornery as usual, his only successes came in standing up for his oft-fouled midfield mates.

Darlington Nagbe  (Off 68′) — 6  — This game looked set up for him to pick the ball up from Michael Bradley and dance into the midfield, but he only got a few chances as Panama’s tactics were aimed at fouling the Yanks’ two best dribblers in him and Pulisic.

Christian Pulisic  — 9 — A simply incredible bit of work to work two veteran defenders and assist Dempsey’s goal. Failing an unforeseen dip in company, Pulisic is going to be one of the most important players in American men’s history.

Clint Dempsey  — 6 — Scored the goal that earned the point, but otherwise fought to be a part of the match. That’s the sign of a legend, though, still finding a way to make himself matter on a poor evening.

Jozy Altidore  — 5 — Might’ve had a dozen touches in the game. Part of this was down to the U.S. aiming balls at his head and not his feet, but not his day.

Subs

Alejandro Bedoya (On 68′)  — 6 — Dogged work rate from the Union man.

Kellyn Acosta (On 75′) — 6 — Some creativity on display in limited time

Paul Arriola (On 83′) — N/A —