Manchester United officially clinches 20th league championship

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A story that started about 11 months ago has now been told. And how.

Manchester United fumbled away the English Premier League crown a year ago, squandering a late-season lead as rival Manchester City improbably, notoriously tiptoed away with the last-minute glory in May of 2012.

Sir Alex Ferguson and his Manchester United bunch set immediately about putting that right. Through the 2012-13 English Premier League campaign, the men of Old Trafford toiled and boiled and churned and never took their eyes off the EPL prize.

Then they ran away with the doggone thing. This took on the whiff of “foregone conclusion” more than two months ago. It has been a fait accompli, all but officially, for the last month now.

Monday it became official, a 3-0 win over Aston Villa at Old Trafford mathematically wrapping up the Premier League crown – still a month from last kick in the world’s most storied association.

This was Manchester United’s 20th league crown. In terms of Premier League titles proper (the league has been labeled as such since 1992), Manchester United has 13 crowns – a phenomenal total considering that no other club has more than three crowns.

What distinguishes the latest Manchester United coronation is that this version is rather undistinguished. This is not like the Red Devils of 1999 and 2008, signature sides of the Ferguson era, the fabulously talented groups that ruled the Premier League matters. David Beckham, Peter Schmeichel, a young Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Roy Keane and Dwight Yorke were marquee men of the former; Edwin van der Sar, Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez, Scholes and Giggs (still) highlighted the latter. These were all giants of their era. (OK, “eras” in the cases of the ageless Giggs and Scholes.)

(MORE: Robin van Persie’s hat trick Monday, in context)

The current version is not a signature squad in terms of talent. In fact, we don’t need too fine a microscope to identify real flaws in this roster.

David de Gea in goal? He’s not there yet, not close to Schmeichel-esque. The defending was left quite iffy once captain Nemanja Vidic suffered yet another injury setback. Michael Carrick has been effective in midfield, but he won’t make anybody’s World Best XI.  Nor will Rooney nowadays – not outside of England, anyway.

Robin van Persie is truly the Red Devils only world class star of the moment. And yet, take a gander at that luxurious lead in the Premiership table.  That spells dominance, no matter which way you turn it.

This latest title, the milepost 20th, is all about Ferguson’s drive and the group’s collective desire, unflinching and always so determined, to grind on. They won early and late and at all points in between, never losing footing nor focus while the pursuers took the occasional spill. Those seem so inevitable over such a taxing campaign. Inevitable, that is, but for the most stubbornly single-minded assemblies.

The Premier League has demanded that United wait until its home finale (May 12 vs. Swansea) to actually, physically lift the Premier League trophy. Never mind that. The players celebrated well after Monday’s final whistle. And it seemed about time – the rough draft on this one has been long since finished.

(MORE: Robin van Persie’s stunning strike, the best of his Monday trio)

From van Persie, in his first year at  Old Trafford since the high profile move out of his longtime Arsenal home: “I feel very happy, I had to wait so long for my first title. We’ve got a fantastic team, great players, it’s a championship for every single one of them. Managers, trainers, physios, staff, everyone deserves this.”

Mourinho: Mkhitaryan “disappeared” during games, got dropped

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It would appear that Henrikh Mkhitaryan has become the new Luke Shaw, who not so long ago became the new Juan Mata, who had become the new Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos and Pepe, who all previously become the new Kaka and Mesut Ozil — players previously perceived to be undroppable, only to fall out of favor and be dropped from Mourinho’s side.

[ MORE: Carrick back in training after operation to fix irregular heartbeat ]

Similarly to many of the aforementioned stars of Manchester United, Chelsea and Real Madrid sides of the not-so-distant past, Mourinho recently singled out Mkhitaryan for not working hard enough for the team and failing to meet expectations with his performances.

Mkhitaryan last featured in Man United’s 1-0 loss to Chelsea on Nov. 5, prior to the most recent international break. He played just 62 minutes, to follow an UEFA Champions League appearance of just 45 minutes against Benfica. Mkhitaryan was then absent from the substitute’s bench for a victory over Newcastle United and a defeat to Basel.

[ MORE: Pochettino sees Sanchez as one of world’s best defenders already ]

In Mourinho’s mind, Mkhitaryan hasn’t merited a place in the team — quotes from the Guardian:

“I was not happy with his last performances. I’m not speaking about one or two, I’m speaking about three, four or five. He started the season very well and after that, step by step, he was disappearing. His performance levels in terms of goalscoring and assists, pressing, recovering the ball high up the pitch, bringing the team with him as a no. 10, were decreasing.

“That was enough [to drop him] because the others worked to have a chance. Everybody works to have a chance. It’s as simple as that.”

“I don’t know if Mkhitaryan will start but, for sure, he will be back in the group. For him to be back to the group, it means that somebody is going to leave the group.”

Davinson delights Pochettino, who predicts “massive” strides

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It’s still very early days for Davinson Sanchez as a Tottenham Hotspur player, but the early returns are extremely positive as the Colombian center back has featured in 14 of the club’s 17 games in the Premier League and UEFA Champions League this season.

[ MORE: Spurs beat Dortmund again to win group with Real Madrid ]

What’s more encouraging than Sanchez’s initial performances? The 21-year-old’s “massive” room for improvement and the expectation he’ll one day soon be one of the world’s best defenders, according to manager Mauricio Pochettino.

After signing for Spurs in August, Sanchez went straight into Pochettino’s starting lineup, slotted in between stalwarts Toby Aldeweireld and Jan Vertonghen, who together last season led the defense with the PL’s best record (26 goals conceded in 38 games), as part of a back-three. Sanchez has taken to Tottenham like a duck to water, in Pochettino’s estimation — quotes from ESPN FC:

“You saw against against Dortmund how many times he was with [Pierre-Emerick] Aubameyang one-versus-one. How many central defenders can play one-versus-one and escape and go, be tight and press? If you run, I run because I am so confident when running. I think not many center backs in the world can do this.

“Or against Swansea against Tammy Abraham: how many times he was one vs. one and the ball was behind him, he was on the halfway line and running was not a problem? And against Cristiano Ronaldo, too?”

“We expect more from him, but I am so happy with him. He is doing well, very well. He’s only 21 years old, but he shows more maturity [than that], and he’s so aggressive when he’s marking, his concentration [is good] and then with the ball he’s good, but I think he can improve.

“There is massive scope to improve potentially, it’s massive for him. In only a few months, he’s showing he’s doing a fantastic job for us. [He can improve in] every single aspect, tactic, physical condition, technique.

“We need with him one and a half months or two months preseason every day, and then I’m sure he’s going to show a different level. I think he’s one of the best today, but has potential to improve a lot more.

“Because he’s so clever, and he’s very humble, and he’s very open to learn, he’s a player when you tell something his reaction is to be open, and be critical with himself, and that is a massive skill from a player, when he’s so open to improve, and then the conditions he has are amazing to be one of the best center halves in the world.”

To state the completely obvious, Pochettino was wise to utilize Aldeweireld and Vertonghen as training wheels for Sanchez, if you will, upon his arrival. His athleticism and pace make him 1) the ideal complement to a pair of players who read the game so well; and, 2) perfectly positioned to operate as the last-man, emergency defender on the rare occasion either Belgian is breached.

[ MORE: Liverpool host Chelsea in massive top-four clash ]

For the first time all season, Sanchez started out wide in Alderweireld’s absence (hamstring) against Arsenal last weekend, and for the first time since his arrival, he appeared a flawed — which is to say, human — defender. To his credit, Sanchez gave a quality account of himself on the whole, and finished the game much stronger than he’d started.

No one was more aware of this than Pochettino, though, as he slid Eric Dier into Aldeweireld’s spot for Tuesday’s Champions League triumph over Borusia Dortmund, again deploying Sanchez in the middle. With Aldeweireld expected to miss a couple more weeks at minimum, the Tottenham teamsheet should routinely read Vertonghen-Sanchez-Dier from left to right until he returns.

Lille appoint four interim managers to replace Bielsa

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LILLE, France (AP) A four-man coaching team will take provisional charge of French soccer club Lille in the wake of Marcelo Bielsa’s dismissal.

Lille says Fernando Da Cruz, Joao Sacramento, Benoit Delaval and Franck Mantaux will be in charge of the team until further notice.

Lille announced earlier this week that Bielsa had been suspended “as part of a procedure started by the club” following a 3-0 loss at Amiens.

The northern side is in 19th place and next travels Saturday to Montpellier, which has the best defense in the league.

Bielsa joined Lille this season but failed to make the club competitive. After finishing a disappointing 11th last season, Lille hired the coach – affectionately known as El Loco Bielsa (Crazy Bielsa) – with the aim of returning to the Champions League.

Irregular heartbeat the cause of Carrick’s recent absence

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Manchester United captain Michael Carrick hasn’t played for his club since Sept. 20, a confounding period of more than two months now, and the reason for the 36-year-old midfielder’s absence has finally come to light: an irregular heartbeat.

[ MORE: Mourinho slams critics (again), gives injury updates ]

The condition, which Carrick announced himself on Friday, was first detected after Man United’s League Cup victory over Burton Albion. He has since undergone a cardiac ablation, a procedure to scar or destroy tissue in your heart that’s allowing incorrect electrical signals to cause an abnormal heart rhythm, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Carrick was named the new United captain this summer following the departure of Wayne Rooney. As told in the above statement, he is working toward full fitness and once again being available for selection in Jose Mourinho’s side.

Hooray for modern technology and medicine, which allow otherwise baffling medical conditions to be diagnosed, treated and recovered from in a matter of weeks or months.