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.

MORE ENGLAND:

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.

LIVE, UCL: Liverpool, Man City in action; Dortmund-Tottenham

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Three Premier League teams are in UEFA Champions League action on Tuesday with Liverpool knowing a win at Sevilla will see them qualify for the knockout stage for the first time since 2009.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ] 

Jurgen Klopp‘s side head to Spain in good form after three consecutive wins in the Premier League and are in a very healthy position in Group E.

Tottenham Hotspur head to Borussia Dortmund with Spurs’ place in the last 16 already secured and Dortmund (Christian Pulisic is out of the squad with an injury) needing a win to keep their faint hopes of reaching the knockout stage alive with Real Madrid heading to APOEL Nicosia in Group H.

Manchester City have also secured their spot in the last 16 and host Feyenoord in Group F. The Dutch side have lost all four of their UCL games so far this season but have taken a huge number of traveling fans to Manchester and they can still qualify for the Europa League via finishing in third spot ahead of Shaktar Donetsk.

Elsewhere Monaco host RB Leipzig in a pivotal clash in Group G.

Click on the link above to follow commentary on all the action, while below is the full schedule as we will have reaction and analysis on all the UCL action on Tuesday.

All games kick off at 2:45 p.m. ET, unless otherwise stated.


Tuesday’s UCL schedule

Group E
Spartak Moscow 1-1 Maribor – FT
Sevilla vs. Liverpool

Group F
Manchester City vs. Feyenoord
Napoli vs. Shakhtar Donetsk

Group G
Monaco vs. RB Leipzig
Besiktas 1-1 FC Porto – FT

Group H
Borussia Dortmund vs. Tottenham Hotspur
APOEL vs. Real Madrid

FIFA bans 3 soccer officials for life for taking bribes

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GENEVA (AP) Three soccer officials who pleaded guilty in American courts to accepting bribes were banned for life by the FIFA ethics committee on Tuesday.

They include former FIFA audit committee member Richard Lai of Guam, who testified in federal court that the source of his bribe money was Olympic powerbroker Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah of Kuwait.

“His guilty plea related, amongst others, to schemes in which he received bribes in exchange for his support in relation to the FIFA presidential elections and to gain control and influence within the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) and FIFA,” the soccer body said Tuesday in a statement.

Sheikh Ahmad referred his own case to the ethics committees of FIFA and the International Olympic Committee in April after Lai’s guilty plea was revealed. The Kuwaiti royal also withdrew from an election to retain his seat representing Asia on the FIFA Council.

Two former soccer federation presidents, Rafael Esquivel of Venezuela and Julio Rocha of Nicaragua, were also banned for life Tuesday. They were arrested in Zurich in May 2015 in early morning raids on luxury hotels and later extradited to the United States.

FIFA said its ethics judges imposed “appropriate fines in relation to the amounts of the bribes that they have admitted having taken.”

Lai has agreed to pay “more than $1.1 million in forfeiture and penalties,” the U.S. Department of Justice said in April.

In court, the American citizen pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy charges related to taking about $1 million in bribes, including at least $850,000 from Kuwaiti officials.

Esquivel agreed to forfeit $16 million a year ago when he pleaded guilty to charges of racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy linked to the awarding of contracts for the media and marketing rights.

Esquivel’s name was cited Monday in Brooklyn during testimony in the trial of three other South American soccer officials who deny corruption charges.

One witness who formerly worked for a marketing agency in Argentina said he kept a ledger of payments to officials, including a $750,000 payment to Esquivel for “Q2022.” Prosecutors did not specify if the payment was linked to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Rocha was a FIFA staffer and was working for its development department when he was arrested in 2015. He agreed to forfeit nearly $300,000 after admitting to racketeering conspiracy and wire fraud conspiracy charges last December.

PL Playback: Pogba the key for Man United

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POGBACK

Paul Pogba‘s snake hips goal celebration had been dearly missed by Manchester United’s fans.

So too had his marauding runs from midfield since he injured his hamstring in early September. Jose Mourinho had previously said United were a totally different team without Pogba and his display in the 4-1 win against Newcastle on Saturday proved it.

Speaking to MUTV after the game, Pogba shared his belief that if all of United’s players stay fit they can challenge Manchester City for the title.

“The season is really long so we have to be fit – not only me but all the players,” Pogba said. “To win the league we need all our players. When you have one injured here, one injured there, it doesn’t help. It’s always better to have a full team. Zlatan’s back and Marcos after a long injury. It was hard for them but they kept believing and worked hard to come back. We need them to win the league and we’re really glad they’re here.”

Even if he didn’t jinx past Newcastle’s defense to clip in a wonderful cross for Anthony Martial to head home United’s first, or then make a 60-yard sprint to get on the end of Marcus Rashford‘s knockdown to make it 3-1, Pogba’s presence was felt.

His return gave United’s entire squad, and fanbase, a lift and everything is set up rather nicely for him to battle it out with Kevin De Bruyne in the Manchester derby on Dec. 10 at Old Trafford.

With Pogba this season United have played five games, winning four and drawing one.

Without Pogba United have played seven, won four, lost twice and drawn once in the Premier League.

His influence on this team is key to the way it has been assembled by Mourinho and his power, all-action displays and strong character get the best out of those around him. Nemanja Matic and Romelu Lukaku tick because Pogba is linking the midfield and attack effortlessly with his energetic displays. Over the past two months there’s been a main reason why Lukaku had done seven games without scoring for United before last weekend: Pogba.

Pogba’s comments about United pushing City for the title if they stay fit appear misguided but if he stays fit then there’s no doubt United are the best version of themselves.


INFURIATING ARSENAL

When they play like they did on Saturday, the only team Arsenal will finish below this season will be Manchester City.

Seriously.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned from the North London derby ]

The Gunners destroyed Tottenham Hotspur with a ruthless display in the first half as Mesut Ozil unlocked Spurs’ midfield and defense, Alexis Sanchez ran them ragged and Alexandre Lacazette played on the last shoulder of Tottenham’s disheveled defense.

Arsene Wenger was rewarded for a bold, attack-minded team selection and with Shkodran Mustafi back fit he now has his first-choice starting lineup at his disposal. If the Gunners stay fit, they can make real charge up the Premier League table in the coming weeks with a bunch of winnable games.

In four of their next five Premier League games they should beat Huddersfield, Southampton, West Ham and Newcastle, with the big tests at home against Man United (Dec. 2) and Liverpool (Dec. 22) showing just how far they’ve come so far this season.

The Emirates, so often the site of protests and fan unrest in previous seasons, is become a fortress for Arsenal who have now won 11 PL games there on the spin, their best-ever run of consecutive wins at the stadium.

Between now and Dec. 22 we will get a very good idea as to what way this season will go for Arsenal.

If Wenger’s players stay fit and he remains positive in his team selection, the Gunners could be rewarded with not only a place back in the top four but much more.


WEST BROM’S GAMBLE

Tony Pulis is the man you want in a relegation battle. So, why did West Bromwich Albion sack him?

A run of two wins in 21 Premier League games sealed Pulis’ fate but what exactly did West Brom’s owners expect would happen?

Pulis’ short-term bump from taking over in January 1 2015 wore off midway through last season and his methods, although lauded by many for preserving his proud record of never being relegation from the Premier League, wear players down over time. Even the wily old crew he had assembled at West Brom (they had the oldest average starting XI in the PL) couldn’t cope with it anymore.

[ MORE: Baggies sack Tony Pulis. but what next? ]

The old adage “losing the dressing room” is frowned upon by folks in the industry but it is clear that’s what happened here. Players believe they are better than perhaps they are, most of the time, and get sick and tired of being told to just clip the ball long, stay compact and try to score from set pieces. Most of Pulis’ training session focus on team shape and denying the opposition the ball. Having the ball is an afterthought. That’s too much for some to handle day in, day out.

And we all know, despite the Baggies being a solid midtable club for seven years in the PL now, that getting rid of one manager is much easier than a squad of players.

Getting rid of Pulis was the only available option.

Yet, after a summer where they did some great business to bring in Grzegorz Krychowiak, Kieran Gibbs, Ahmed Hegazi and Jay Rodriguez, things seemed to be on the up. Yet that recruitment and losing the likes of Darren Fletcher caused issues in the squad balance and Pulis all of a sudden had too many newbies on board who either took too much time to get used to his methods or didn’t want to adjust their game to do so.

All in all, West Brom are now left with very few options to replace Pulis other than appointing someone extremely similar to him. Sam Allardyce is from the area (a boyhood Wolves fan, West Brom’s bitter rivals) is the bookmakers favorite and he would seem to be the perfect firefighter against a Premier League relegation battle.

But, like many PL clubs who have sacked their managers so far this season (hello, Everton, Crystal Palace, West Ham) or are contemplating it (Swansea, Southampton and maybe Stoke) the alternatives to their current boss aren’t plentiful. Keeping hold of Pulis was no longer an option West Brom had but, over time, it may seem like the correct one.


Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here

Champions League score picks: Week 5

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Round 5 of the UEFA Champions League group stage is here and plenty of teams will seal their spots in the Round of 16 over the next few days.

[ MORE: Champions League schedule ]

Below you will find score predictions for all 16 UCL games across Tuesday and Wednesday.

[ MORE: Group stage predictions ]

Feel free to join in down in the comments section.


Tuesday

Group E
Sevilla 1-3 Liverpool
Spartak Moscow 2-2 Maribor

Group F
Man City 5-2 Feyenoord
Napoli 3-0 Shakhtar Donetsk

Group G
Besiktas 2-1 FC Porto
Monaco 2-2 RB Leipzig

Group H
Borussia Dortmund 2-1 Tottenham Hotspur
APEOL 0-4 Real Madrid

Wednesday

Group A
Manchester United 2-0 Benfica
Basel 3-0 CSKA Moscow

Group B
Paris Saint-Germain 4-0 Celtic
Anderlecht 1-3 Bayern Munich

Group C
Qarabag 1-4 Chelsea
Atletico Madrid 2-1 Roma

Group D
Juventus 1-2 Barcelona
Sporting Lisbon 2-1 Olympiacos