#FlawedButFabulous update: Manchester United seven points clear after win over Southampton

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The play would have been hilarious if we hadn’t come to expect it from Manchester United’s defense, but after the comical sequence that gifted Southampton Wednesday’s opening goal, all we could do is shrug, grin, and say “That’s our United.” At this point, we’re all laughed out. The same gags are falling flat. Horrible, inexplicable mistakes like the ones committed today by Michael Carrick and David de Gea have become too common.

Yet within 24 minutes of the Red Devils letting Jay Rodriguez put them one down at home, they were back in front, two clinically executed goals leaving England’s leaders to play out the next 63 minutes for a 2-1 win. Combined with yesterday’s Manchester City draw at last place Queens Park Rangers, Manchester United have a seven-point lead in England and are on pace for  94 points.

They’re also on pace for 49 goals allowed. It would be the worst defensive record for a Premier League champion, and it’s one of the reasons why all their mastering of the Premiership will mean little next month against Real Madrid. The likely winners of the Premier League — forever flawed, but forever fabulous — will go into next month’s Round of 16 tie underdogs to Spain’s third place team.

In the third minute at Old Trafford, United’s defending reached news level of farce. A ball plated in from Saints’ left met a poor touch from Carrick, who put the ball past his defense. The United midfielder ran down the ball but under hit his pass back to de Gea, allowing Rodriguez to beat the keeper to the ball. Instead of laying out to try to smother the ball at the Saint’s feet, de Gea hopped in the air, a seemingly panicking response to being left exposed. The Southampton attacker dribbled around de Gea and put the ball into and empty goal from the edge of the six-yard box.

The lead didn’t last long. A beautiful ball chipped over the defense by Shinji Kagawa in the eighth minute allowed Wayne Rooney to finished the give-and-go into the left-side netting. Nineteen minutes later, a Robin van Persie restart saw Patrice Evra head across the six to give Rooney an easy second goal.

The rest of the game played out in typical Manchester United fashion. Were they in control? Who can tell with United? They can allow goals at any time, though today they didn’t. Throughout the rest of the match, they gave as good as they got in terms of chances, even if there was the typical air of cautious inevitability that hovered over the final half-hour.

It looked like United’s going to win. It seemed so improbable that the league’s first place team playing at home would capitulate of a relegation-embattled side. But who dared walk away from their screen? Did anybody honestly believe United couldn’t be freakishly breeched at any moment?

There’s only one thing you can trust with Manchester United. Where the minute-to-minute of their existence defies predictability, the aggregate always ends near the top of the league. Most years, they take the medals. Some games are dull, others dominant, others inexplicable, but it’s a rare year when you collected all 38 results and United’s anywhere but the top two.

Still flawed, still fabulous, United notched another unpredictable win on Wednesday, but predictably, they increased their lead in England.

Spanish police dismantle match-fixing scheme in 3rd, 4th tiers

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MADRID (AP) Spanish police have dismantled a match-fixing scheme involving players and clubs in the country’s lower divisions.

Authorities said more than 20 people have been detained as part of the police operation launched on Monday, including players, although no names were immediately disclosed.

The matches under suspicion were in the third and fourth divisions this season and last season.

The match-fixing scheme reportedly involved Chinese betting sites.

The Spanish league said the operation was based on information collected by its analysts about suspicious activities.

UCL preview: Chelsea host Barcelona; Bayern vs. Besiktas

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  • Chelsea vs. Barcelona, at Stamford Bridge
  • Bayern Munich vs. Besiktas, at Allianz Arena
  • Champions League round of 16 resumes on Tuesday

[ UCL: Spurs fight back to draw Juventus | Liverpool thrash Porto in leg 1 ]

Chelsea, mired in some of their worst form since the disastrous 2015-16 season, welcome a Barcelona side enjoying one of the best six-month runs of results in the famed club’s entire history. The Blues have won just four of their last 12 games across all competitions, while the Blaugrana have lost once in 38 games.

On the plus side, Chelsea enter Tuesday’s colossal clash as winners of their last two games — back-to-back wins for the first time in 2018 — having outscored the likes of West Bromwich Albion and Hull City by a combined 7-0. Star striker Alvaro Morata returned to action against Hull after five weeks out with a back injury, thus Antonio Conte has something of a selection dilemma on his hands with the Spaniard perhaps only partially fit, and Olivier Giroud racking up a goal and three assists in the last two games, his first starts for the club.

Barcelona, meanwhile, have conceded just two goals in their last nine games (all competitions) and even managed to overturn their lone defeat, to Espanyol, and advance to the Copa del Rey semifinals (and eventually final). Despite losing Neymar in the summer, Barca mostly cruised through their Champions League group, only dropping points in draws away to Juventus and Olympiacos. Lionel Messi has, strangely, never scored a goal in his eight career appearances against Chelsea, a record which has been spoken about at length in the build-up to Tuesday — similarly to the goal-less record which plagued him against Juve goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, whom he finally bested back in September.

[ MORE: Man City win big away to Basel | Real Madrid 3-1 PSG ]

In the other round-of-16 first-leg matchup on Tuesday, five-time (soon-to-be six) defending Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich host surprise winners of Group G, Besiktas, ahead of the likes of Monaco, RB Leipzig and Porto.

Since taking over on an interim basis (through the end of the season), Bayern boss Jupp Heynckes has won 21 of 22 games of which he’s been in charge, including four of six games during the group stage en route to finish second behind Paris Saint-Germain, while also racing out to a 19-point lead back home in Germany.

Aguero involved in clash with Wigan fan after FA Cupset

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MANCHESTER, England (AP) Sergio Aguero was involved in a confrontation with a Wigan fan as ugly scenes marred the end of the third-division side’s shock FA Cup win over Manchester City on Monday.

[ MORE: Wigan shock Man City, the world and themselves ]

Fans spilled on to the pitch at DW Stadium as the host celebrated its 1-0 fifth-round win against the runaway English Premier League leader.

Supporters from both clubs were involved in disturbances, while television pictures appeared to show a home supporter and striker Aguero involved in a physical exchange.

Aguero appeared to hit the supporter after the fan said something to the player, and Aguero had to be held back by his City teammates.

[ MORE: Money from Wembley replay “will support Rochdale for 2 or 3 years” ]

Advertising hoardings were also ripped out and thrown as a pitch invasion by Wigan fans got out of hand while the defeated City players were being escorted off the pitch.

Footage also appeared to show objects, including an advertising board, being thrown at police officers by fans in the City end.

Wigan shock themselves: “Not sure how it feels, hasn’t sunk in yet”

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Wigan Athletic didn’t just shock Manchester City with their FA Cup fifth-round slaying of the runaway Premier League leaders; nor did they merely shock the rest of the footballing world; they also shocked themselves into disbelief, according to defender Dan Burn.

[ MORE: Goodbye, quadruple! Wigan bounce 10-man City from FA Cup ]

Speaking following Monday’s triumph over Pep Guardiola‘s quadruple-chasing side at the DW Stadium, Burn admitted he himself didn’t know what to make of the night that would undoubtedly highlight and change his own professional career — quotes from the BBC:

“Not sure how it feels, hasn’t sunk in yet. It was a really tough game. The belief was always there. We’ve got Will Grigg, who does what he keeps doing.

“We pride ourselves on our clean sheets. We had a couple bad results before, so we wanted to prove ourselves, so a clean sheet against the best team in England is great.

“Once we scored, the fans really got behind us, just knew we needed to hang on. It was the longest 10 minutes of my life.”

[ MORE: Money from Wembley replay “will support Rochdale for 2 or 3 years” ]

Manager Paul Cook was able to articulate his happiness and pride only slightly better — “It feels great” — but offered the highest of praises to his players, whom “had to ride [their] luck at times” during the game, and gave everything they had to the cause, because that’s the only way you beat a team like Man City:

“It feels great. It’s such a severe test. They’re such a strong side and move the ball so well. We had to ride our luck at times and the sending off is always a big incident.

“Our lads deserve credit for their work and some of the blocks they made were outstanding, and to beat Man City you have to do that.”