A moment’s pause as Sir Alex Ferguson says goodbye to Old Trafford

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Long ago, I thought I was a Manchester United fan, back when I assumed you had to have a team to care about any league. It wasn’t long before I grew out of it – an errant soul unable to believe any of his childhood dreams, disillusioned into a life of criticism and suspicion — but in the days when the only games you’d see if you were a kid growing up in rural California were late, English league matches tape delayed by your regional sports outlet, you either followed Manchester United, Liverpool or whatever other club happened to be playing when insomnia exposed your credulity. Even back when they weren’t good – before the Premier League, Cantona, and the boon of Sky’s bankroll – Manchester United were still on television all the time, albeit at ridiculous hours when even Australian Rules Football had a mid-day highlight shows on the not-yet Worldwide Leader.

I didn’t know who Alex Ferguson was, and I’m not sure when I found out, though when I did, I’m sure I didn’t bat an eye. Even to the pre-teen me, whose knowledge of soccer barely went beyond my AYSO league and Ryan Giggs’ ability to set up a defender before his next touch, there was already a ubiquity to man overseeing the Red Devils. To me, he was both unknown and omnipresent; a transcendent figure just waiting to be revealed. The only other people I could equate him to were Quincy Jones or Clive Davis – elusive, omniscient presences that forced me to stop and asked, “Oh, he’s running this? Oh, of course he’s running this. I knew that.” There were no English league-scouring friends or Twitter followers to offer alternatives, and without their second-guessing, I was sure Ferguson had been there all along.

For people my age (mid-30s), Ferguson is as prominent in our English soccer lives as the league itself – a league that fragmented and spawned a leviathan in our early fandom, leaving entities like Manchester United and its manager to transcend the turmoil. Once the chaos settled and the Premier League was born, the United boss was its central figure, having acquired its first big star (Eric Cantona) and featuring a class of player that would define the circuit’s early commercial success: the flare of Giggs; the skill of Scholes; the inspiration of Keane; and the draw of Beckham. And while the van Nistelrooys, Ronaldos, Ferdinands and Rooneys cycled in to played their part, it was the manager that remained the protagonist. In terms of plot, in terms of narrative, there was no Premier League without Alex Ferguson driving it.

source: Getty ImagesIt seems like a stretch, but with 13 titles in the 21-year Premier League era, it’s no exaggeration to say each year’s drama can been seen through a Red Devils’ lens, especially given the contrast of the club’s fortunes before and after the circuit broke of from the Football League. Prior to the Sky-travaganza that started in 1992, spurring a surge that has since redefined world soccer, Manchester United went 26 years without a title. But they won in year one. And every year since, a stretch that’s seen them claim 12 titles in 20 years, each season’s defined by two questions: Is Manchester United supposed to win? And if not, how will the favorite hold them off?

During that time, English football has gone from a lightly-exported regional league to the defining brand in world soccer, a journey which can be tracked by its exposure in this country. Whereas a soccer fan born in the times of an Eastern Bloc and divided Germany had to scrounge low-budget late night repeats for their soccer fix, converts were soon able to see games an honest-to-goodness national entity. And then there was a channel that broadcast soccer. Then there were multiple games, digital packages, and starting next year, a free-to-air network committed to showing games on a weekly basis. Now, South America, Africa, Asia all follow the league with the same zeal as we do. This is not the post-Heysel, pre-inclusion league Ferguson joined in 1986. From exclusion to exemplar, England’s become the commercial benchmark.

And amid that accompanying iconography, few presences have been as constant as Ferguson’s. Perhaps you could point to Manchester United’s titles or the metronomic Ryan Giggs as other heartbeats of the Premiership’s infancy, but that’d only be dodging the obvious. Ferguson is the backbone behind each. Within that handful of clubs (seven) that have been in the league since day one, Ferguson’s has been the protagonist. If you did nothing but track Ferguson over the lifetime of the Premier League – if you were nothing but a true believer who bought into the legend before it was born — you’d be as cognizant as anybody of what the Premier League is all about.

So if you’re relatively new to English soccer – if you were lucky or young enough to not have to wade through its ascendance, to land on the doormat of this pre-constructed Orwellian monolith – this is why day like Sunday’s against Swansea and next week’s at West Brom’s are so important. Today, Ferguson manages his final game at Old Trafford – the final chance for Red Devils supporters to pay tribute to a man who literally defined the club. And next week, at the Hawthorns, West Brom and their fans will get the honor of representing the Premier League at large. The ever-present, the backbone, the constant will be gone, saying goodbye in Sandwell in front of 26,272.

Nobody watching Sunday’s game will know a Premier League without Alex Ferguson, and only those old enough to remember Ron Atkinson can speak to what world soccer was before Ferguson’s arrival. But in our confusion we can still acknowledge our ignorance and realize the change that’s upon us. Most of us don’t know of a league without Ferguson, and many of us would not be watching without him. It’s worth a moment to consider before Sunday’s farewell.

As an American, I normally refrain from calling Ferguson “Sir Alex,” but eight hours before his final match in Manchester, I can’t think of a more appropriate tribute. You don’t have to cower to British honorifics to make “Sir” into something else, if only for one day. Use it to recognize his achievement. Use it to recognize his influence. But on Sunday, use ‘Sir Alex’ to recognize an icon is saying goodbye to Old Trafford.

PL roundup: Chalk at the top, blowouts at the bottom

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Get caught up on all of Saturday’s Premier League fixtures…

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Manchester City 4-1 Tottenham HotspurFULL RECAP

What’s left to say about Man City at this point? Christmas is still nine days away, and their lead in the title race has already ballooned to 14 points. Pep Guardiola‘s side will have such an advantage that they’ll be able to choose between chasing the elusive unbeaten PL season, or resting key players with an eye toward winning the UEFA Champions League. Or, you know, he might just choose to do both, because he can.

Anyway, Ilkay Gudogan, Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling (twice) scored the goals as City blew the doors off Tottenham. Christian Eriksen‘s consolation goal was little more than a 92nd-minute pity present.

Chelsea 1-0 SouthamptonFULL RECAP

Marcos Alonso scored a stunning free kick — what else? (WATCH HERE) — to give Chelsea a 1-0 victory over Southampton at Stamford Bridge. The Blues had ample opportunity to put the game to bed, but much like fellow top-four chasers Arsenal, couldn’t do so and were made to sweat all the way through the game’s final moments. The victory pulls Antonio Conte‘s side level with Manchester United for second in the PL table, though United don’t play until Sunday.

Arsenal 1-0 Newcastle UnitedFULL RECAP

Mesut Ozil scored one of the goals of the season (WATCH HERE), and it was all Arsenal needed to edge past Newcastle and leave Rafa Benitez‘s side sitting in the relegation zone another few days, at least. Thanks to points dropped by Tottenham and Burnley (yes, Burnley), Arsenal now sit fourth in the league table with only Liverpool capable of leapfrogging them this weekend.

Leicester City 0-3 Crystal PalaceFULL RECAP

The good times were really rolling for Leicester, who entered Saturday’s clash with Palace riding a five-game unbeaten streak (four straight wins) under new manager Claude Puel. Oh, how quickly fortunes can change in the PL. Christian Benteke and Wilfried Zaha had the visitors 2-0 up by halftime, and Bakary Sako added another goal during second-half stoppage time, just for good measure. Speaking of fortunes changing quickly, Palace now sit 14th in the league table, four places and two points clear of the relegation zone.

Roy Hodgson, miracle worker.

Watford 1-4 Huddersfield TownFULL RECAP

Huddersfield will stave off relegation quite comfortably if they can continue picking up lopsided wins every second or third game for the rest of the season, even if they’re sandwiched by blowout defeats. Saturday’s romp past Watford will surely go down as the most straightforward all season, as the Terriers went 2-0 up in 23 minutes, then went a man up after Troy Deeney was sent off in the 33rd. It was 3-0 after five second-half minutes, and 4-0 with more than 20 minutes still to play. Back up to 11th, David Wagner‘s side is six points clear of relegation just one game shy of the halfway mark.

Stoke City 0-3 West Ham UnitedFULL RECAP

Marko Arnautovic haunted his former club, Stoke City, as he scored a goal and was a constant threat throughout West Ham’s 3-0 victory at the bet365 Stadium. That makes three games without a loss, including two wins, for the Hammers under new manager David Moyes. Like Palace, they are also now two points clear of the relegation zone.

Brighton & Hove Albion 0-0 BurnleyFULL RECAP

Burnely, who began the weekend level with Tottenham and Liverpool (and ahead of Arsenal) for fourth place, dropped points for the first time in three games. Brighton, meanwhile, haven’t won in their last seven PL games and have slowly but surely slid back to the relegation-fighting pack.

Sunday’s PL schedule

West Bromwich Albion vs. Manchester United — 9:15 a.m. ET
Bournemouth vs. Liverpool — 11:30 a.m. ET

World champs! Ronaldo goal gives Madrid a 3rd CWC title

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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) Cristiano Ronaldo scored from a free-kick to help Real Madrid claim its third Club World Cup title after beating Brazilian team Gremio 1-0 Saturday.

The Ballon d’Or winner fired his right-footed shot between two players in Gremio’s defensive wall, leaving goalkeeper Marcelo Grohe no hope of reaching the ball before it bounced inside the post in the 53rd minute.

Madrid defended the title it won last season as it collected its fifth trophy of 2017, along with the Champions League, Spanish league, European Super Cup and Spanish Super Cup.

Ronaldo celebrated the goal by rushing to Madrid’s dugout where he was embraced by his teammates. The goal increased Ronaldo’s record to seven goals in the competition. He also scored in Madrid’s 2-1 comeback win over Al Jazira in the semifinals.

“What am I going to say? The numbers speak for themselves. I am very happy. The team played fantastically well and it has won another title,” Ronaldo said. “We played a very good game and deserved the victory.”

Madrid equaled Barcelona’s record of three titles for the short knockout tournament between the champions of FIFA’s six continental confederations and the host nation’s league winner.

European clubs have won 10 of the last 11 Club World Cups, with only Brazil’s Corinthians interrupting that streak in 2012 when it defeated Chelsea.

Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane played the same starting 11 from last season’s Champions League final in June, when Madrid crushed Juventus 4-1 – led by Ronaldo’s double.

The European champions outclassed Gremio throughout the match, but the closest it got to scoring in the first half was Dani Carvajal’s goal-bound volley in the 20th that was cleared by Pedro Geromel.

While Gremio had to scramble on several occasions to stop Madrid inside its own area, the closest the South American champions came at the other end was a free-kick by Edilson that swerved onto the top netting near the half-hour mark.

Geromel had tried to set the tone early on with a hard tackle that left Ronaldo writhing in pain, and hoping for a booking that never came.

Ronaldo had a poor first half. He twice erred in short passes with his back heel that failed to reach his teammates, and he squandered a good opportunity when he took too long to shoot when a loose ball fell to him close to the net.

All that changed after the interval. Ronaldo baited Jailson into fouling him outside the area with some fancy dribbling, setting up his winner.

Ronaldo thought he had another goal moments later, but Karim Benzema was ruled offside before he passed the ball back to Ronaldo.

Marcelo Grohe kept his side in the game by pushing Luka Modric’s shot onto his post and denied Ronaldo a second goal, but Gremio never mounted a serious response to get the equalizer.

Bundesliga wrap: Pulisic’s late winner sends BVB 3rd (video)

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While Bayern Munich continue to run away with their sixth straight Bundesliga title, the royal rumble over who’ll finish second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth — seven sides are currently separated by four points from second to eighth — rages on.

[ MORE: Man City make it 16 straight wins | Three studs, three duds ]

Stuttgart 0-1 Bayern Munich

You’ll quickly notice an emerging theme from Saturday’s games: late, result-altering goals.

Bayern dominated every phase of play the way they usually do, but were made to wait 79 minutes for a breakthrough. It was beginning to look as if their lead might shrink to seven points this weekend, but Thomas Mueller was more than happy to play the part of hero.

There was further heartbreak for Stuttgart, who then had a penalty kick saved by Lars Ulreich in the 93rd minute.

Borussia Dortmund 2-1 Hoffenheim

Dortmund have won back-to-back league games, for the first time since September, since firing manager Peter Bosz last week, and this one came courtesy of a certain, well-known American teenager.

Mark Uth put Hoffenheim ahead in the 21st minute, and Dortmund appeared to be headed for their first loss under new boss Peter Stoger. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang brought the home side back to level terms in the 63rd minute, but again, it seemed for the longest time that it wouldn’t be enough.

Then came the 89th minute, time for Christian Pulisic to shine. The presence of mind to flick the ball over the goalkeeper with his first touch, the control to drop the ball exactly where he wanted it on the other side, the quick feet to maneuver his way around the ‘keeper. The euphoric feeling as he slams the ball into an empty net.

Eintracht Frankfurt 2-2 Schalke

Schalke are making something of a routine out of falling behind by multiple goals, only to roar back to life and rescue a point in the game’s dying moments. First, there was the comeback from 4-0 against Dortmund. Today, the hill to climb was halved in size, but the point won is no less significant.

After falling 1-0 behind in the 1st minute and 2-0 behind in the 64th, Domenico Tedesco’s side got goals from Breel Embolo in the 81st minute and Naldo — scorer of the final goal in that 4-4 thriller — in the 94th.

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away Pts
 Bayern Munich 17 13 2 2 37 11 26 7-1-0 6-1-2 41
 FC Schalke 04 17 8 6 3 28 21 7 5-3-1 3-3-2 30
 Borussia Dortmund 17 8 4 5 39 24 15 4-1-3 4-3-2 28
 RB Leipzig 16 8 4 4 25 22 3 5-2-0 3-2-4 28
 Moenchengladbach 17 8 4 5 27 28 -1 5-2-2 3-2-3 28
 Bayer Leverkusen 16 7 6 3 30 19 11 4-4-0 3-2-3 27
 1899 Hoffenheim 17 7 5 5 27 22 5 5-3-1 2-2-4 26
 Eintracht Frankfurt 17 7 5 5 20 18 2 2-2-4 5-3-1 26

Elsewhere in the Bundesliga

Augsburg 3-3 Freiburg
Werder Bremen 2-2 Mainz
Cologne 1-0 Wolfsburg

Sunday’s Bundesliga schedule

Hannover vs. Bayern Leverkusen — 9:30 a.m. ET
RB Leipzig vs. Hertha Berlin — 12 p.m. ET

Three stars, three duds from Man City 4-1 Spurs

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Spoiler alert: Our three stars and three dudes from Man City’s 4-1 demolition of Spurs fall neatly along club lines.

[ MORE: Match recap | 3 things from the Etihad ]

Three stars

  1. Kevin De Bruyne — Short of Lionel Messi, is anyone anywhere near the Belgian’s level right now? The passing, the shooting, the resilience in the face of constant fouling; KDB is a magician.
  2. Leroy Sane — The 21-year-old has more than justified his $62 million price tag — as much as such a thing can be justified — with terrific service, blinding pace, and wise reading of the game.
  3. Ilkay Gundogan — His header ushered City in front and he could’ve scored a second, but the ex-Borussia Dortmund man was a marshall in the middle of the park.

Three duds

  1. Dele Alli — Hasn’t scored since bagging a brace against Real Madrid on Nov. 1, and had miserable positioning when Gundogan headed home the opener. Then stamped Kevin De Bruyne with an outrageous blade in the second half. Not being sent off is hilarious;
  2. Kieran Trippier — For as dangerous as Trippier can be moving forward, he was out to lunch as Leroy Sane and Kevin De Bruyne — might wanna mark them, fella — raced down the left to make it 2-0 City.
  3. Hugo Lloris — Spurs’ sensational goalkeeper didn’t have many moments in him at the Etihad Stadium, dribbled around for the final goal.