Liverpool's Skrtel challenges Stoke City's Walters during their English Premier League soccer match in Stoke-on-Trent

How do you give up three to Stoke? Liverpool found out

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If Stoke City’s capable of putting on displays like Wednesday’s at the Britannia, Tony Pulis’s entire approach will need to be question. The Potters’ manager usually employs a rugged, defensive style that sacrifices aesthetics for the practicalities, recognizing a squad built around size and strength should stick to what it does best. On Boxing Day, they were compelled to change.

With Liverpool going up in the second minute, Stoke were forced out of their shell. Once there, the Potters proved capable of getting through Liverpool’s thin midfield and at a central defense that is proving increasingly problematic for Brendan Rodgers. The result was offensive explosion, the league’s worst attack depositing three goals behind Pepe Reina en route to a 3-1 win.

MORE: Everton prove viable without Fellaini

It was difficult to tell if the result was more Stoke’s quality or Liverpool’s failings. As in most games, both the winner’s virtues and loser’s errors were on display. The Potters showed a ability going forward they rarely endeavor to display, with John Walters’ two goals earning him deserved Man of the Match honors. Simultaneously, Reds’ central defenders Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel, less than two weeks after struggling in a loss to Aston Villa, continued to show their limitations.

Both players are international quality defenders, but paired in the middle of Liverpool’s defense, they often seem too similar to complement each other. When Jamie Carragher was capable of starting in the middle, Liverpool had a central half that could do more of the tracking. Without him, Agger and Skrtel are often left a step behind.

Stoke’s first goal saw Agger slow getting under a header which, put back toward goal, allowed Walters to equalize after a Skrtel slip. Stoke’s second allowed target man Kenwyne Jones to put the Potters in front, while Agger failed to close down Walters ahead of the final goal.

MORE: Fabulous and flawed, Manchester United stay top

But only so much time can be spent dwelling on Liverpool’s failings before Stoke’s best performance in two years ges overshadowed. Walters complemented his trademark industry with surprisingly clinical finishing. The much-maligned Jones was able to compete with Liverpool’s physical defenders, while Steve N’Zonzi exhibited a class on the ball the midfielder’s rarely has license to show.

The only down point was Ryan Shawcross’s early foul on Luis Suárez, conceding a penalty kick for Steven Gerrard. Ultimately, the early Liverpool goal helped Stoke. Forced to go get a goal, Stoke played with a quality few knew they had.

MORE: Hart, Mancini failings on display at Sunderland

You have to trust Tony Pulis knows his squad best, but after Wednesday’s show, many will rightfully ask why Stoke can’t play that way more often. They were markedly better than a team which came into the day eighth in the Premier League, and while you wouldn’t recommend Stoke try to go blow-for-blow against teams like Tottenham (who they frustrated to a standoff last week), against most of the Premier League, a performance like today’s gets full points.

Maybe Pulis knows today was an aberration, but given how infrequently Stoke try to show their quality, it’s natural for onlookers to have doubts. With Pulis unlikely to change a successful approach any time soon, all we can do is hope the Potters give up more early goals, forcing them to play a more progressive style.

Watch Live: Man United vs. Spurs | Saints vs. Middlesbrough (Lineups, Stream)

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 10:  Dele Alli of Tottenham Hotspur holds off Michael Carrick of Manchester United during the Barclays Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United at White Hart Lane on April 10, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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Manchester United hosts Tottenham from Old Trafford (Watch live, 9:15 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) in a clash that provides both clubs the opportunity to remain in sight of the Premier League’s leaders..

WATCH LIVE ONLINE HERE

Jose Mourinho’s side enters Sunday on a five-match unbeaten run in PL play, however, the Red Devils come in frustrated after dropping points in three straight draws. For Spurs, Mauricio Pochettino and co. have won two straight in all competitions, scoring eight goals in the process, following the side’s first PL defeat to Chelsea two weeks back.

For United, the squad will see many regulars on the bench to start Sunday’s encounter, including Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney. Meanwhile, Tottenham will look to Harry Kane and Son to keep the team’s attack flying on all cylinders.

LINEUPS

Manchester United: De Gea, Valencia, Jones, Rojo, Darmian, Carrick (C), Herrera, Mkhitaryan, Pogba, Martial, Ibrahimovic. Subs: Romero, Bailly, Blind, Fellaini, Mata, Rashford, Rooney.

Spurs: Lloris (C); Walker, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Rose; Wanyama, Dembele; Eriksen, Dele, Son; Kane. Subs: Vorm, Wimmer, Davies, Dier, Winks, Sissoko, Nkoudou.


Southampton hosts Middlesbrough from St. Mary’s Stadium (Watch live, 9:15 a.m. ET available online via NBCSports.com) as the Boro look to create separation between them and the league’s bottom sides.

Both sides enter Sunday winless in three of their last four PL fixtures, however, a victory for either side would push them closer to the top half of the table.

The Saints will have much depth on the bench if necessary, including Shane Long and Nathan Redmond, while Cristian Stuani leads the way up front for the Boro.

Southampton: Forster, Clasie, Fonte (C), Rodriguez, Tadic, Romeu, Martina, Ward-Prowse, Van Dijk, Boufal, McQueen. Subs: Taylor, Yoshida, Long, Davis, Reed, Bertrand, Redmond.

Middlesbrough: Valdes, Barragan, Chambers, Gibson, Fabio, Clayton, De Roon, Forshaw, Stuani, Fischer, Rhodes. Subs: Guzan, Bernardo, Nsue, Leadbitter, Traore, Downing, Nugent.

Dier: Euros, injuries affected form early in season

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 19: Eric Dier of Tottenham Hotspur (L) and Michail Antonio of West Ham United (R) battle for the ball in teh air during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United at White Hart Lane on November 19, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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Despite starting 2016/17 with just one defeat in their first 14 Premier League matches, one of Tottenham’s key figures from a season ago has gotten off to a quiet start.

[ MORE: Spurs visit Manchester United, Liverpool hosts West Ham ]

While Spurs currently sit fifth in the PL table, Eric Dier has been a shell of himself in the early going of the campaign for Mauricio Pochettino‘s group, and the Englishman believes it’s likely because of the long summer at EURO 2016.

[ MORE: Leicester shock Man City in Saturday’s PL slate ]

The 22-year-old has been tasked with playing multiple positions thus far, as injuries forced the midfielder back into defense at times this season. However, Dier remains confident that he will pick up his play and can help Tottenham no matter which role he plays.

“It is completely up to the manager where I play. What is more important is making sure I’m feeling good mentally,” Dier said. “That is more important to me. If I get back to that, where I have a good feeling and my confidence is back, then whatever position I am playing in, I will be able to play.

“I feel that I am getting it back – last weekend and against CSKA. I am just trying to get everything back to the levels of last season.

“It has been a difficult start for me this season – it has been there for everyone to see.

“It has been tough coming back late from the Euros because I haven’t really been able to get going. Then I got injured a couple of games into the season and that halted me again. And when Toby got injured I played at the back again.

“This is football and these things happen to everyone. It has not been a ­catastrophe – it has just been a bit of a low start.

“I don’t think there has ever been a really low point. It is just about getting back to where I want to be.”

Dier notched three goals and two assists in the PL a season ago, however, the young midfielder has yet to hit the scoresheet in 2016 despite appearing in 13 matches.

Sunday’s test against Manchester United would be an ideal time for Dier to find the back of the net as Spurs look to build off of last weekend’s 5-0 thrashing of Swansea.

Watch Live: Chelsea vs. West Brom (Lineups, Stream)

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 22:  Diego Costa of Chelsea and Joleon Lescott of West Brom battle for the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and West Bromwich Albion at Stamford Bridge on November 22, 2014 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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Chelsea hosts West Bromwich Albion from Stamford Bridge (Watch live, 7:00 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) as the Blues look to extend their eight-match win streak.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE HERE

The Blues make one change from last weekend’s 3-1 come-from-behind victory over Manchester City as Cesc Fabregas makes way in the starting XI for Nemanja Matic.

Antonio Conte‘s side will be opposed by a West Brom side that is unbeaten in their last four Premier League matches. The Baggies remain unchanged from last week’s 3-1 win over Watford as the side looks to move above eighth in the table.

LINEUPS

Chelsea: Courtois; Azpilicueta, David Luiz, Cahill (c); Moses, Kante, Matic, Alonso; Pedro, Diego Costa, Hazard. Subs: Begovic, Aina, Ivanovic, Chalobah, Fabregas, Willian, Batshuayi.

West Brom: Foster; Dawson, McAuley, Evans, Nyom; Yacob, Fletcher (c); Brunt, Morrison, Phillips; Rondon. Subs: Palmer; Olsson, Robson-Kanu, Gardner, McClean, Galloway, Chadli.

“Pretty unreal, a fairy tale” — Alonso, Marshall celebrate Sounders title

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TORONTO — Talk about penalty kicks all you want, and definitely talk about that save, but Seattle’s formative heart kept Toronto FC’s vaunted attack off the scoreboard to win its first MLS Cup final.

Veterans Chad Marshall, Osvaldo Alonso, Stefan Frei, and Roman Torres simply got the job done against Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and the high-flying Reds.

“We knew what a great offensive team they are,” Marshall said. “Giovinco and Jozy are incredible. The amount of goals they put up this postseason is pretty ridiculous, so to keep them off the board for 120 minutes is incredible.”

[ MLS CUP: Seattle wins in PKs | 3 things ]

The man in front of him, Alonso, was a prime reason for that. Countless connecting passes and perfect spacing limited TFC’s chances with the ball. After an MVP caliber season, you could argue that Alonso deserved just as much of a shout for MLS Cup MVP as winner Frei.

“In the final you have to give everything you have to win,” Alonso said. “I step on the field to play for my team, play for myself, and play for my family. And I think I did that.”

Both Alonso and Marshall spoke of the moments following Torres’ match-winning PK, as the Sounders crew flew down to pitch to celebrate in front of a rave green and blue visitors section high above BMO Field.

[ MORE: Bradley apologizes to fans ]

[ MORE: Altidore, Frei on that save ]

“I think I threw my back out on the run to Roman, and he flew right by me,” Marshall said. “It was just nuts. I lost my voice in a matter of 20 seconds. It’s just so exciting.”

Alonso was filled with pride for the fans at the game, and the ones back in Seattle who stood by the Sounders after a midseason coaching change.

“They deserved this, the trophy, because they are always there for us,” Alonso said. “Even when we were down at the bottom of the table. This trophy means a lot for me.”

Marshall admitted the words weren’t coming to him, even an hour after the game.

“I don’t know if I can. It’s an incredible feeling, from where we in July, the Kansas City game, to this moment right now, it’s pretty unreal, a fairy tale.”

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