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Big opportunity ahead as United States faces Honduras in World Cup qualifying action

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SALT LAKE CITY – The United States has done such great work over the last two weeks, scooping up valuable points and invaluable momentum in the reach for a seventh consecutive World Cup, putting itself in such swell positioning ahead of a summer international break.

It really would be such a shame to fumble away all that momentum now.

So manager Jurgen Klinsmann is stressing the need to finish strong, to take care of the details and to demonstrate the kind of 24/7, ultimately focused regional watchdog approach – the one he has worked to build over two years – Tuesday against a vulnerable Honduran bunch.

Klinsmann’s team has so much going for it at the moment, starting with the momentum of a three-game winning streak. A 4-3 victory over Germany may have been a meaningless friendly, but it became a springboard of confidence before a highly meaningful World Cup qualifier win in Jamaica, then a boss-man performance in last week’s 2-0 win in Seattle over Panama.

The praise flew effusive for that one, probably the most complete match yet in 22 months under the German manager. Plus, it had the crowd sing-songy with the “We are going to Brazil! …. ” bit.

Not yet. Not exactly. But the United States sits majestically in first place in the six-team final round group, with three of the final five matches at home. “At home” is massive in these qualifiers as the United States has not lost one on U.S. soil since 2001. The team is 22-0-2 in that time.

Kickoff at sold-out Rio Tinto is set for 9 p.m. ET on ESPN  and in Spanish on UniMas.

“As you see, we’re playing with a lot of confidence right now,” U.S. forward Clint Dempsey said Monday. “We’re playing really good soccer. When we’re losing the ball, we’re fighting hard to win in right back real quick, making good decisions in the attacking third and scoring goals. It’s about keeping that going and, like Jurgen said, keeping that consistency.”

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(MORE: U.S.-Honduras lineup prediction)

Generally speaking, Honduras always looked like the tougher of two opponents in the States over the past week. Panama, frankly, proved a pretty tame opponent in last week’s memorable encounter in Seattle.

Honduras has talent to go with a true grit and big belief, and it was no accident that the Catrachos qualified for World Cup 2010. Two years later the under-23s were a real revelation during the London Olympics.

But the team has critical absences, notably to commanding center back Victor Bernardez. He would have been the chief obstacle for U.S. striker Jozy Altidore, the young U.S. striker who has shushed his critics with a goal in each of the last three U.S. matches.

Starting midfielder Luis Garrido is also suspended for Honduras and forward Jerry Bengtson, who struck the game-winner past Tim Howard in February, has left the team in playing-time feud with manager Luis Suarez. Finally, Honduras will also miss injured, wiry attacker and winger Oscar Boniek Garcia, who gave the United States real problems last time these guys met.

(MORE: Which is the bigger personnel loss for Honduras)

That was in Honduras in February, a 2-1 win for Honduras that ignited the latest predictable moment of “crisis” for U.S. Soccer. It happens once or twice each World Cup cycle, when the fandom and the chattering class fall over backward in disgust as the United States stumbles in one of these tricky Central American or Caribbean.

The United States is in such a vastly different place for tonight’s match inside Rio Tinto Stadium, situated wonderfully at the base of the Wasatch Mountains and home to Major League Soccer’s Real Salt Lake.

Klinsmann has lineup choices ahead: Who replaces DaMarcus Beasley (suspended due to yellow card accumulation)? Does midfield enforcer Jermaine Jones get back into the lineup following his concussion recovery? Is there a place for Eddie Johnson, who held his own along the right in Seattle last week?

Presumably, Graham Zusi will be back into his spot along the right side after missing the win over Panama due to yellow card build-up.

(MORE: Jermaine Jones cleared to play)

The United States is already well positioned and another win Tuesday would leave the drive for Brazil 2014 in glorious shape. In all likelihood, Klinsmann’s team would need just one more win in the final four matches to officially qualify for Brazil. They could probably even make it with just a couple of ties – not that anybody wants to limp into a World Cup leaking momentum that way.

But first things first, and that means taking care of business Tuesday in Utah, where it will be windy and quite warm in the thin air. Honduras will be physical and tactically well organized, probably looking to concede possession and make the United States work especially hard once they reach the scoring third of the field.

“There is no easy game at all anymore,” Klinsmann said of the CONCACAF region. “You first have to somehow break them down, score your first goal and go from there. If you don’t break them down, which happened down in Mexico a few times, you struggle. Because teams are physically very strong, they keep the pace high with you, they keep the rhythm and they are tactically very well organized. They all go behind the ball once they lose it. There’s always a wall of nine or ten guys behind the ball.”

(MORE: United States notes ahead of the match)

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VIDEO: Arsene Wenger apologizes for being sent off

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While his team was fighting for second position in the Premier League table, Arsene Wenger was watching from the depths of the Emirates.

Incensed at the (correct) decision to award Burnley a penalty two minutes into stoppage time after Arsenal had controlled much of the game, Wenger lashed out at fourth official Anthony Taylor, causing referee Jon Moss to send Wenger off the pitch.

The Frenchman was forced to watch Alexis Sanchez score a penalty of his own, giving Arsenal a stunning 2-1 win over the Clarets. After the match, Wenger was pleased with the victory, but apologized for his actions, which included shoving Taylor slightly on three separate occasions.

“I saw it [the winning penalty] on television, I at least saw what happened,” Wenger said. “I didn’t see a penalty from outside, but I should have kept my control and I apologize for that. [I should have] not said a word. I should have shut up.”

It’s possible that Wenger sees punishment from the FA for his actions, as it isn’t the first time he’s clashed with referees this season.

The Frenchman was complimentary of Burnley’s defense, with Arsenal controlling much of the game but failing to score more than one goal through regulation.

“My team was well organized, which makes the game simple but efficient. It’s kind of frustrating games that you get here, and you have to deal with it tactically, and we did it well. We won over there in the last second with a little bit of a dodgy goal, and we won today again just in the last second again, so they’re a very strong team.”

Wenger was non-committal when asked about Granit Xhaka‘s dismissal, saying it was on the other side of the field so he did not get a good look at the decision.

Xhaka’s latest red makes him the most sent-off player in Europe

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 22:  Granit Xhaka (R) of Arsenal protests to referee Jonathan Moss after shown a red card during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Burnley at the Emirates Stadium on January 22, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Granit Xhaka was a marked man before he came to England. With four dismissals over the last two club seasons, Arsenal fans were aware they were bringing in a talented passer and midfield destroyer, but also a man who had trouble staying on the pitch.

That has manifested itself in the Premier League, and has been maybe even exacerbated.

With his second straight red card of the season, Xhaka’s disciplinary issues are a hindrance to the Gunners and leaves Arsene Wenger with a big decision to make – to continue Xhaka’s selection in the matchday squad when he returns from suspension, or leave him on the sidelines as to not risk again falling down to 10 men.

Over the last 2-1/2 calendar years dating back to the start of the 2014/15 Bundesliga season when he was with Borussia Monchengladbach, Xhaka has been sent off six times in league play, once in the Europa League, and another for his international team during 2018 World Cup qualifying this past summer. The league record alone is more than any other player in the top 5 European leagues.

While obviously the sheer numbers are a major issue, the true problem is in the eye test. Xhaka isn’t learning from his mistakes. No, his dismissal against Burnley wasn’t the most malicious of challenges, but it was a textbook straight red card. The Swiss international passed the ball straight to Steven Defour, and long after the Burnley midfielder unloaded the ball to a teammate, Xhaka went lunging in with both feet showing studs, forcing referee Jon Moss to show him the showers after a quick conference with the assistant referee who was in perfect position to make the call.

If the 24-year-old wishes to find his way back to the field in Arsenal colors, he needs to start learning from his actions, or he will end up on the bench, either through suspension or selection. It nearly cost Arsenal a chance at second place against Burnley, with the Clarets energized by their man advantage. He has four domestic matches to think about what he’s done.

Chelsea 2-0 Hull City: Costa return sends Chelsea eight points clear

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 22:  Diego Costa (R) of Chelsea celebrates scoring the opening goal with his team mates during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Hull City at Stamford Bridge on January 22, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
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Chelsea didn’t miss a beat with Diego Costa out, but they sure are glad to have him back.

The Spaniard bagged a goal in lengthy first-half stoppage time and Chelsea eased its way to all three points to take advantage of a host of slip-ups near the top of the table to work an eight-point gap at the summit. A late goal from Gary Cahill secured the points as the Blues were on their way.

The Blues had the opening chance just 11 seconds into the game as they boomed a long ball forward, one that Diego Costa chested down and volleyed just inches wide left.

Past the 12 minute mark, there was a lengthy injury delay after Ryan Mason and Gary Cahill had a very nasty clash of heads. Cahill came out relatively unscathed and was able to stay on but Mason was down for several minutes, requiring full medical attention as he received oxygen and was carefully placed on a backboard before being stretchered off.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

The game seemed to fall asleep after the delay, with Mason replaced by David Meyler. Hull had a spell of possession, including a corner, before Chelsea got back on the ball. The Blues nearly got a break when a shot from Marcos Alonso took a massive deflection and nearly looped into the top corner, but Eldin Jakupovic was there to tip it behind.

That moment began a huge spell of pressure for the Blues. David Luiz rose high to meet a Victor Moses cross but couldn’t get the contact, and then Pedro went to ground for a penalty shout but was denied. Hull’s defensive shape was fantastic in the first half, and while Chelsea held the bulk of possession, they had little to show for it in front of net. In significant first half added time they came close again, with Alonso on the left wing cut one across the face of goal, but it was just out of reach for a sliding N'Golo Kante and into Jakupovic’s arms.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Before the break, Chelsea would break through. Victor Moses cut a ball across the penalty area that somehow made it all the way to Diego Costa without a touch, and the Brazilian put himself back in the spotlight with a powerful finish.

The second half was a spirited one, but didn’t produce much in front of net. The television commentators called the game “plucky” which accurately described the action. After 70 minutes, Chelsea manager Antonio Conte brought off Eden Hazard for Cesc Fabregas. Hull City had a healthy amount of attacking intent, but couldn’t get by the Chelsea back three.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

It wasn’t enough for the Tigers, as Chelsea put the game away with 10 minutes to go. Substitute Cesc Fabregas delivered a free-kick into the box, and Cahill snuck in around the back, getting free and heading in from point-blank range. Fabregas earned his sixth assist of the Premier League season, tied for most on Chelsea despite playing just 521 minutes. Costa nearly had a third four minutes later, but was stuffed by Jakupovic from a tight angle.

The three points pushed Chelsea eight points clear at the top, with Liverpool, Tottenham, and Manchester City dropping points. Hull City’s loss sees them remain in the relegation zone, in 19th on 16 points, three from safety.

Real Madrid loses Modric and Marcelo to injuries in Malaga win

MADRID, SPAIN - JANUARY 21:  Marcelo of Real Madrid CF comes off substituted during the La Liga match between Real Madrid CF and Malaga CF at the Bernabeu on January 21, 2017 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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The 40-game unbeaten run seems like a distant memory.

Real Madrid had lost two straight matches before a 2-1 La Liga win over Malaga on Saturday, but despite the three points, they still did lose in a way.

Los Blancos lost both Marcelo and Luka Modric to injury in the match, and both could potentially miss up to a month of time.

Modric has been in and out of the squad this season due to injuries, and during his other lengthy spell on the sidelines, he was replaced adequately by 22-year-old Mateo Kovacic, and he was the man to replace Modric against Malaga with 12 minutes remaining. Reports say the Croatian suffered an adductor injury which can be quite painful and could keep him off the field for a number of weeks.

Marcelo, meanwhile, has been a staple in the Madrid lineup, appearing in the last 11 league matches and starting all but two of those. Marcelo was brought off just 25 minutes into the Malaga win reportedly with a hamstring problem, replaced by Isco. The likely long-term replacement for the 28-year-old Brazilian would be Nacho Fernandez, who has seen time this season on both defensive flanks.

The injuries puts not just the immediate La Liga and Copa del Rey futures of the two in jeopardy, but also could affect their availability for the start of the Champions League knockout stage which begins on February 15th against Napoli.