How a messy match unfolded, a “real snow battle”

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COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – Three points is three points, and if the United States does eventually earn its way to Brazil, the points gathered during a snow globe-worthy scene in suburban Denver will count just the same as any others collected in the long qualifying chain.

But what a scene it was, pretty and yet messy and certainly meaningful all at once Friday for the Americans, whose 1-0 win over Costa Rica should help quiet some unrest and put the team in a better place heading into a razor wire-tough match in Mexico City.

As for the soccer game itself, well, it wasn’t much of one.

“It was a real snow battle,” U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann said. “By the second half it was a battle for second balls. For both teams it was tough to create a passing game or good chances. …  We all just had to adjust to the snow. Battle it out. Finish it out and then move on.”

He was underselling the difficulty of it.

The footing was always treacherous, even in the first half when some green of the grass was still visible. By the second half, as the snow accumulated (against the best efforts of the shovel bearers at DSG Park), dribbling or passing over pretty much any distance was somewhere between difficult and impossible.

Clint Dempsey’s early goal was absolutely essential – perhaps one of his most important yet in U.S. uniform, and he has a bunch of them. (In fact, with his 12th in World Cup qualifying the Texan is now tied with Landon Donovan for the all-time U.S. lead.) It took the pressure off of the United States, not to mention getting something on the scoreboard when worsening conditions was making any offensive maneuvering increasingly tricky.

Every athlete has been in backyard games where elements and obstacles rule; it did look at times in Friday’s fluffy proceedings as if the visitors had been in more of them. They seemed to adjust better.

(MORE: Pictures from the Colorado snow globe.)

The Americans seemed destined to get themselves in trouble with their insistence on playing patiently out of the back. The Ticos, by comparison, recognized the danger more quickly of doing so.

At halftime Klinsmann urged his team to get balls into the opposition end faster, and warned off certain balls that should not be messed with on such a night.

Still, there were times in the second half when the United States seemed determined to pass the ball through the midfield. Meanwhile, the Ticos were all about aiming balls to highly stationed Alvaro Saborio.

U.S. center back Clarence Goodson and Omar Gonzalez dealt well with the long stuff, but the danger always seemed present.

“The beginning of the game it wasn’t so difficult,” said Gonzalez, making only his second World Cup qualifier start. “The snow was actually making the ball move pretty nicely. Once the stuff started sticking, it made it difficult to get your footing, to put together some passes or just to dribble.

“At halftime we said, ‘Don’t risk any balls to the sidelines out of the back, any balls to the keeper. If you feel like the heat is on you, just put it up in the channels and let the forwards make a play. Just don’t risk anything.”

Individually, few players really excelled out there; some just managed the elements better than others.

DaMarcus Beasley got the assignment at left back, answering one of the vexing questions of the week. When the game still had some kind of shape, for about 30 minutes, the converted midfielder attempted to play as a very aggressively stationed left back, as the United States attempted to push forward against the visitors.

On the right, Geoff Cameron attempted runs up the right but sometimes was not on the same page as Graham Zusi, who seemed to have particular trouble with his footing.

Jermaine Jones showed everyone a lot, looking quite comfortable, bossing the midfield in the first 45 minutes (to the extend anyone could) and even playing through a nasty gash that required halftime stitching.

“He’s an example in this team,” Klinsmann said. “They look at him and see him go again and go again, it gives a lot of positive energy to the team to see him battle through the way he does. In the end, I took him off because he was just exhausted.”

And then there was goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who handled almost everything better than he could have been expected to.

“In these conditions, you just try to get everything you can behind the ball, to make sure you have a good barrier behind it,” said Guzan, was started in place of the injured Tim Howard. “The guys in front of me did a good job of limiting their chances, and the few opportunities they did have I was able to deal with them.”

Roma slips in 3-1 derby loss to Lazio

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The Derby della Capitale went Lazio’s way, all but shattering any hopes Roma had of catching Juventus for the Scudetto as Keita Balde scored a brace in the 3-1 win.

Balde is absolutely on fire, with now five goals in his last two matches. His brace comes on the heels of a hat-trick in a 6-2 win over Palermo last time out.

The 22-year-old Senegalese international scored his first just 12 minutes in thanks to some horrid defending from Roma’s Emerson, and Balde cut the ball inside the near post to the surprise of Wojciech Szczesny. His second killed off the game in the 85th minute on the break, as Senad Lulic unselfishly gave it up to Balde on the 2-on-1 for an easy finish.

With Balde’s first the only score of the first half, Roma had momentarily pulled back level on a Daniele de Rossi penalty moments after the break, but it was Dusan Basta to provide the eventual winner just five minutes later. The goal was a bit generous, as his hit at the top of the box took a huge deflection off Federico Fazio and looped into the top corner.

Roma dominated possession throughout, but they were locked down, as Lazio matched them on the shot count despite finding themselves on the back foot for much of the game. Roma also saw Antonio Rudiger sent off in the dying minutes of the game for a very high boot that caught Lazio substitute Filip Djordjevic directly in the shin.

The loss paired with Rudiger’s impeding suspension means that Roma must now change its focus from looking ahead towards Juventus and instead over their shoulder. With a brutal run-in for Roma remaining, including games against AC Milan, Juventus, and Chievo Verona left on the schedule, they will be tested to hold their four-point lead over Napoli, who also has a game in hand.

Stream Live: Lukaku, Everton welcome title favorites Chelsea

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Everton hopes to have a better showing than the reverse fixture as welcome leaders Chelsea to Goodison Park live at 9:05 a.m. ET on CNBC or live online at NBCSports.com.

The Toffees fell 5-0 on their visit to Stamford Bridge in early November, part of a furious Chelsea run and the beginning of a poor run of form for the home side. Now, Everton is flying to finish the year, led by Romelu Lukaku, who is surrounded by rumors of a return from whence he came to Merseyside, from today’s opponents.

[ WATCH LIVE: Everton vs. Chelsea live online at NBCSports.com ]

Lukaku has 12 goals in his last 11 games, on absolute fire to the end of the campaign, only feeding the rumors. He heads the attack, with support from Enner Valencia who returns to selection after a short suspension last time out. Aaron Lennon, Seamus Coleman and Ramiro Funes Mori are all injured with long-term problems, but Everton has no other issues.

For Chelsea, the Blues continue with the decorated back three of Cesar Azpilicueta, David Luiz, and Gary Cahill. Despite his positive performance last time out against Southampton, Cesc Fabregas is rotated back to the bench in favor of first-choice attacker Pedro, who supports Diego Costa along with Eden Hazard.

With the Blues four points clear at the top, this game represents one of the tougher fixtures remaining on their soft finish to the season. Chelsea has lost a whopping six of its last 10 trips to Goodison Park across all competitions.

LINEUPS

Everton: Stekelenburg, Holgate, Jagielka, Williams, Calvert-Lewin, Baines, Gueye, Davies, Barkley, Valencia, Lukaku.
Subs: Robles, Kenny, Pennington, Barry, Lookman, Mirallas, Kone.

Chelsea: Courtois; Azpilicueta, David Luiz, Cahill; Moses, Kante, Matic, Alonso; Pedro, Diego Costa, Hazard.
Subs: Begovic, Zouma, Ake, Chalobah, Fabregas, Willian, Batshuayi.

Stream Live: Man City can strengthen Top 4 spot at Middlesbrough

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A week after Manchester City struggled to finish on net, the torrid Gabriel Jesus returns to the lineup as the Citizens travel to Middlesbrough at 9:05 a.m. ET live online at NBCSports.com.

Jesus scored three goals in five Premier League appearances after arriving in the winter, but broke a bone in his foot and faced a long spell on the sidelines. He is back from injury and starts alongside Sergio Aguero in the City attack. Raheem Sterling drops to the bench as Pep Guardiola produces a flat 4-4-2 to fit both attackers in the formation.

[ WATCH LIVE: Middlesbrough vs. Man City live online at NBCSports.com ]

City is also now forced to play with Willy Caballero in goal after Claudio Bravo was injured in the Manchester derby. On the bench to back up the goalkeeper is 21-year-old Manchester City youth product Angus Gunn.

For Middlesbrough, they were forced into a change as Fabio comes into the lineup in place of the injured Daniel Ayala who drops out with an ankle problem. Gaston Ramierz was reportedly available for selection after missing the win over Sunderland due to suspension, but he does not appear in the lineup or on the bench.

Boro has served as City’s boogey team in the past, without a win in their first 14 Premier League meetings, but they have turned that around, with wins in four of their last seven against Boro.

LINEUPS

Middlesbrough: Guzan, Fabio, Chambers, Gibson, Friend, Clayton, De Roon, Forshaw, Downing, Stuani, Negredo.
Subs: 
Dimi, Bernardo, Barragan, Fischer, Traore, Bamford, Gestede.

Man City: Caballero, Kompany, Kolarov, Otamendi, Clichy, Navas, Fernandinho, Garcia, De Bruyne, Jesus, Aguero.
Subs: 
Gunn, Sagna, Zabaleta, Fernando, Sterling, Nolito Sané.

Man United 1-1 Swansea: Sigurdsson rescues a point for Swans

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Swansea City went controversially behind, but they always remained a threat, and Gylfi Sigurdsson was again the man to pull them from the cold, dark waters.

Wayne Rooney had bagged a highly controversial penalty at the stroke of halftime, but Sigurdsson delivered his specialty: a beautiful curling free-kick with 11 minutes to go as Swansea grabbed a point and doomed the home side to yet another single point at Old Trafford.

Swansea began with much of the early possession, with Manchester United sloppy on the ball. The home side, which has been struck by countless injuries of late, was forced into yet another early change as Luke Shaw was unable to make it out of the opening 10 minutes with an ankle injury, replaced by Antonio Valencia.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

A furious chance for the Swans saw Fernando Llorente shake free of Eric Bailly and force a good save from David De Gea on 14 minutes. Down the other end two minutes later, Jesse Lingard timed a run well and received a brilliant ball from Anthony Martial, but he couldn’t bag the opener, with Lukasz Fabianski there to smother the ball.

On the half-hour mark, Martial burst into the box and took it on himself, cutting across three defenders to find space and firing on net but it was right at Fabianski who held on nervously.

Just before halftime, United found the breakthrough as Marcus Rashford went down near the endline on a challenge from Fabianski. The decision was poor, as Rashford dove amid hardly any contact from Fabianski off his line, but with the referee in a poor position to see the magnitude of the challenge, he pointed to the spot after a long deliberation. Wayne Rooney, who had been mostly invisible in the first 45 minutes, buried the chance from the spot with the final kick of the first half.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Rooney nearly had a second just minutes after the halftime break, but his effort on the empty left side of the net thumped into the back of Martial and harmlessly away. United then suffered yet another injury to its defense, with the reliable Eric Bailly unable to continue after whacking the back of Llorente’s leg.

Injuries were a concern for both sides throughout the contest. Swansea had just brought on Jefferson Montero, who has been plagued by hamstring problems all season. Montero was on the pitch just five minutes before pulling up after a physical contest between he and Antonio Valencia, forced back off the pitch and needed a stretcher to reach the tunnel. Martin Olsson came on, and was immediately thumped in the air full tilt by Ashley Young, but thankfully Olsson could continue despite the heavy clatter to his ribs.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Swansea fired a warning shot at the Red Devils on the break as Jordon Ayew cut back for Gylfi Sigurdsson, but he thumped the ball acres over the bar. That was a harbinger of things to come, as Ayew was fouled on the edge of the penalty area, and Sigurdsson stepped up to conjur the ball into the back of the net, with David de Gea failing to even produce an attempt at a save.

The visitors nearly snagged the win in six minutes of stoppage time, on a free-kick from Sigurdsson yet again, which he lofted into the box, and with Llorente’s defender Daley Blind falling to the turf, the Swans striker was completely free, but he bungled the wide-open chance and saw it harmlessly into the arms of De Gea.

The point for United only moves them within a point of the top four, failing to snag the chance to jump Manchester City, who have yet to play today. For Swansea, they fail to pull out of the relegation zone, still sitting two points below Hull City despite owning a slightly better goal differential.