Advantage Manchester United; Manchester City drifts further from title defense possibility

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Feel free to wonder if today was the day Manchester United looked at the Premier League table, considered the yawning gap that has opened up between itself and the one remaining EPL pursuer, took a deep breath and began to indulge a smidge of dreaming about how it will feel to have that title back at Old Trafford.

Nine points. That’s the United edge over Manchester City with 13 matches to go.

And we are way, way past talking about any other challengers.

Only a truly implausible collapse from Sir Alex Ferguson’s men – hardly an outfit known for such crash landings, never mind last year’s little hiccup – will keep United from wrestling the title claiming by their noisy neighbors from City nine months ago.

That’s the big picture from today’s 2-2 draw at the Etihad, where Manchester City actually needed a late Sergio Aguero goal not to fall further behind. Liverpool seemed OK with the draw; City seemed to understand the moment.

Combined with City’s disappointing 0-0 tie earlier this week at Queens Park Rangers, Roberto Mancini’s team is four points further adrift than a week ago, and the prospects of defending last year’s hard-won title look bleak indeed.

Mancini, for one, is remaining steadfast. What he said after Sunday’s setback:

Is the title race over? No. Seven or nine points, don’t change [the outlook]. I think we can recover it.”

Perhaps that Italian math works differently. Nonetheless … Yes, City was eight points behind United with six games remaining last year. So these deficits can be overcome.

And perhaps having the Mario Balotelli anchor removed from their collective ankle will inspire something more from Mancini’s men.

But given a schedule that looks favorable to United, is anybody willing to bet on it?

League Cup semifinal preview: Arsenal vs. Chelsea

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  • Chelsea has won 4-of-7 League Cup matches vs. Arsenal
  • Arsenal leads all-time series 74W-58D-62L
  • Clubs have drawn four times this season

Hardware hopes are on the line when Chelsea hits the Emirates Stadium for a League Cup semifinal second leg with Arsenal on Wednesday.

The sides drew 0-0 at Stamford Bridge, giving Chelsea the advantage of knowing a scoring draw would do the trick and set up a date with Manchester City at Wembley on Feb. 25, though Arsenal has home field advantage in pursuit of a win.

[ MORE: Bristol City 2-3 (3-5 agg.) Man City ]

Henrikh Mkhitaryan may debut for Arsenal, though the club released an interesting note on Tuesday: He’ll wear No. 7 in most competitions, but will have to use a different number in the Europa League because Alexis Sanchez wore it to start the tournament.

Chelsea’s Antonio Conte won’t have Alvaro Morata (back) and Cesc Fabregas for the match, though Andreas Christensen will be available for selection.

The clubs are no strangers to each other in big non-PL spots, squaring off in this season’s Community Shield (Arsenal won in penalty kicks) and last season’s FA Cup Final (Arsenal won).

Nothing has separated the sides on the field aside from those penalty kicks at Wembley Stadium, as Arsenal and Chelsea have drawn 1-1, 0-0, 2-2, and 0-0 since August.

What they’re saying

Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger on Henrikh Mkhitaryan“He can play in different positions, but personally I see him first in a wide position, but I’m thinking about him a possibility to play through the middle. You are certain in our job of nothing, that’s absolutely sure. But you believe and I believe he has the qualities to do well, is a team player and our game is based on team attitude and movement and I think he can absorb the quantity of movement in our team.”

Chelsea’s Conte on the lineup: “Every game is different, you change the quality of your opponent and you must be intelligent enough to understand if you should continue with the same players or make some changes.”

Javier Mascherano leaving Barcelona after 8 seasons

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says defender Javier Mascherano is leaving the club after eight seasons.

Barcelona says there will be a farewell ceremony on Wednesday with Mascherano, club president Josep Bartomeu and the rest of the squad.

[ MORE: Man City to buy $86m CB ]

The 33-year-old Argentina international will say goodbye to the fans before Thursday’s game against Espanyol at Camp Nou in the Copa del Rey. He is reportedly going to play in China.

Mascherano, who also played as a defensive midfielder, arrived in Barcelona in 2010 from Liverpool and helped the Catalan club win 18 titles. He has made 334 appearances with Barcelona, but recently hadn’t been playing much.

The club earlier this month signed Colombia international Yerry Mina to boost its defense.

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga

Man City reportedly agrees $86m price for Laporte

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Sky Sports reporter Guillem Balague is reporting that Manchester City is set to seal an $86 million purchase of center back Aymeric Laporte from Athletic Bilbao, and all that’s left is for City to agree to contract terms with the player.

[ MORE: MCFC into League Cup Final ]

The 23-year-old has been with the Basque outfit since 2012, making more than 200 appearances for Athletic. Balague issued a Tweet saying Man City opted for Laporte over $34 million Jonny Evans of West Brom.

Laporte is a smooth and technical passer at center back who shouldn’t have a problem with the physical nature of the Premier League either. He’s yet to break into the French national team, and is only the second French player to play for Bilbao.

Rumors have circulated for some time, though a Tuesday report was dismissed because Laporte was in advanced discussions with Man City during a previous transfer window when he changed his mind.

It’s more big money from City, a boon for Athletic Bilbao, and terrific competition for John Stones and any Man City center back not named Nicolas Otamendi (and Vincent Kompany when healthy).

Rapids hire Patel as director; Highest ranking female exec in MLS

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The Colorado Rapids have hired Ena Patel as their new director of player personnel. She becomes Major League Soccer highest ranking female executive, according to the Denver Post.

[ FOLLOW: PST’s MLS coverage ]

According to the Rapids, she’ll report to club GM Padraig Smith and “oversee player contracts, salary budget, regulatory compliance, and soccer operations protocols.”

The move comes about a month-and-a-half after Sporting KC hired Megan Cameron as an assistant director of player personnel, the first woman hired to an MLS team’s technical staff.

Patel’s resume is outlandishly strong, though this is her first foray into the sports world. Here are some words from Smith, from ColoradoRapids.com:

“Ena’s hiring is the final piece of the puzzle for us on the front office side,” Smith, the Rapids executive vice president and general manager, said in a statement released by the club. “Bringing in a sharp, legal mind who can oversee our contractual processes and complex league mechanisms is a really important part of ensuring that we’re fielding the best possible team. We can’t wait for her to get started.”