FBL-ENG-PR-CRYSTAL PALACE-TOTTENHAM

Tottenham’s new-look midfield still a work in progress

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LONDON — Andre Villas-Boas was understandably a happy man following Tottenham’s narrow 1-0 win over Crystal Palace.

Spurs’ manager was delighted with the three points in their first game of the 2013-14 season and praised his team for a disciplined display.

“Very happy. It was a good performance. It was a surprise against Palace because of the amount of new signings that they brought and the fact that we don’t know them so well,” Villas-Boas said. “I am extremely happy with the performance, we had plenty of chances to put the game to bed. We can only be pleased and overall we were the deserved winners.”

Inevitably AVB was asked about the future of Gareth Bale but he declined to comment on a potential transfer, instead stating he is injured and will not be featuring for the foreseeable future.

“The player is injured and unavailable for selection as is not likely to start neither the Tbilisi [Europa League qualifier] or the Swansea game [next Sunday].”

But with Tottenham grinding out a win without their influential attacker, Villas-Boas’ side were lacking a cutting edge with their Welsh wizard sidelined. Spurs deployed two holding midfielders against Palace as Paulinho and Mousa Dembele battled it out with Mile Jedinak in the engine room.

(MORE: Crystal Palace 0 – Tottenham 1, Soldado’s penalty seals the win for Spurs)

Villas-Boas accepted that Palace made Spurs’ job extremely difficult.

“I think Palace set up really, really well. Because they put three players behind the striker very, very narrow. Plus two more in midfield so it made it extremely difficult for us to play through the middle. We were outnumbered in the middle.”

Belgian international Dembele, 26, also believed Spurs did as well as they could on a hot and sticky day in South London.

“It was not easy,” Dembele said. “The pitch was very dry, so it took a bit out of our game because we want to play fast and everything. In the end we had some good chances. They are a good side but we should have been ahead by more.”

Dembele’s fellow Belgian international Nacer Chadli carved out a few chances and did well out on the left. Leaving Spurs fans optimistic that they’re covered even if Bale does leave. And Icelandic attacker Gylfi Sigurdsson was sharp and creative in the No. 10 role.

Sigurdsson was happy with his performance and to return to his favored position behind the front man.

“It was nice to play there again and I enjoy playing there. Hopefully I will stay there behind the striker. I think that is probably what I prefer, but I will play wherever the manager wants to play me.”

source: Getty Images
Paulinho, and Spurs, battled well in the engine room.

Capping off a whole host of new faces in Spurs’ midfield, Brazilian midfielder Paulinho looked bright and sharp in the tackle. Palace’s midfield was marshaled by Jedinak who was the pick of their players and made the Spurs midfield work for every single ball.

AVB was pleased with his new midfield terrier. Although Tottenham’s Portuguese boss wasn’t too pleased about Paulinho playing the full 90 minutes for Brazil in midweek, as the Samba Boys lost to Switzerland.

“I don’t understand why he was the only player involved for Brazil for 90 minutes against Switzerland. And he probably should have been taken off a little bit earlier,” Villas-Boas continued. “We didn’t speak to Scolari [Brazilian national team manager] and we didn’t get involved. I was mentioning it because he hasn’t had a 90 minutes for a while. So it was a great, great effort for someone who hasn’t done that in preseason.”

With Paulinho, Dembele and new signing Etienne Capoue — who came on as a second half substitute — shoring up the midfield, Spurs looked solid and dependable as Palace cranked up the heat late on. They certainly looked less fragile than they had last season, as a late onslaught was thwarted with Spurs claiming the shutout.

Last year Spurs conceded easily at times, but they had Bale to rescue them late in games. This season they might not be able to rely on his clutch goal scoring exploits, so a solid midfield core is a necessity. Will it be a different Tottenham team this season?

“I don’t think so,” Villas-Boas said. “Not in terms of the system because we will keep on what we did last season. Between the 4-2-3-1, the 4-3-3 and the 4-4-2. These are the systems that we will continue to work on, it gives us flexibility.”

On this showing, Spurs’ new midfield is more then capable of providing flexibility and solidity.

It will just take time.

Premier League Preview: Sunderland vs. Manchester United

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  • United 6 points outside the top four
  • Sunderland winless in four
  • MUFC has one loss in 27 vs. SAFC (W20, D6, L1)

Manchester United’s uphill battle for a top-four finish continues on Saturday when the Red Devils travel to the Stadium of Light to face Sunderland (Watch live, 7:45 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra).

United won this fixture in September 3-0 behind goals from Memphis, Wayne Rooney, and Juan Mata.

[ WATCH LIVE: Stream every PL game via Live Extra ]

Sunderland sit 19th on the table four points from safety as the time has come for Sam Allardyce‘s side to start getting results. Without a win in their last four matches, the Black Cats must turn things around if they want to stay up in the Premier League. Jermain Defoe scored last time out in a draw at Liverpool, and he’ll once again be tasked with finding the back of the net if Sunderland are to win.

[ MORE: Prince-Wright’s Premier League Picks for Week 26 ]

For Manchester United, the pressure is still on Louis Van Gaal as rumors and reports circle linking Jose Mourinho to the job. Fifth on the table and six points behind Manchester City, a top-four finish is slipping away from United if they don’t rattle off a few wins. A late goal at Chelsea last weekend cost the Red Devils all three points, but they’ll look at this matchup against Sunderland as a good opportunity to get a positive result.

What they’re saying

Sunderland boss Sam Allardyce: “Providing chances for Jermain Defoe is critical for us. But our first major problem is that we haven’t kept a clean sheet in nine matches. We need to start putting a zero against us in games and if we start doing that we’ll win more matches. If we win more matches, we’ll get out of trouble.”

United manager Louis van Gaal: “We had lost four matches in a row in December and you see us now. You can only say that we are mentally very strong and that we can cope with the pressure. That is not enough as we have to improve our results and consistency to win a lot of matches in a row. We have to minimize the gap to our competitors.”

Prediction

Sunderland need all the points they can get to try and stay up, but United always seem to cause the Black Cats problems. Jermain Defoe is kept off the board as Louis van Gaal takes the win. Sunderland 0-2 Manchester United.

Costa breaks nose, will be fit to play for “Zorro team” vs. Newcastle

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 07:  Diego Costa of Chelsea reacts during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on February 7, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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Chelsea striker Diego Costa broke his nose in training after a clash of heads, but should be fit to play in Saturday’s match against Newcastle (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra).

Costa has six goals in his past seven Premier League games as Chelsea are unbeaten in their last 11 in all competitions.

[ MORE: Top 5 PL storylines ]

Manager Guus Hiddink spoke about the injury in his press conference on Friday, saying Costa collided with an Academy player in training. Hiddink said he believes Costa will be ready to play this weekend for his “Zorro team” as Costa joins Gary Cahill, Nemanja Matic, and Cesar Azpilicueta as Chelsea players to wear a mask this season.

It was not a tough duel but he put his nose on the back of the head of one of the youngsters from the Academy that we like to participate in our training games. He was very unlucky.

They are putting a mask on Diego as well, we are the team with a lot of masks, a Zorro team, and he will come back do some light training this afternoon as he must experience how he is dealing with the form and the fitting of the mask.

Costa scored a stoppage-time equalizer against Manchester United last weekend as Chelsea continue to get results under Guus Hiddink. The Blues are up to 13th on the table, just three points outside the top half.

[ RELATED: Frank Lampard urges Chelsea to sign John Terry ]

Chelsea will look to extend their unbeaten run to 12 matches on Saturday against a Newcastle side that is just one point above the drop and in need of a result.

Messi named La Liga Player of the Month for first time in career

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 06:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona celebrates after scoring his team's second goal during the Copa del Rey Round of 16 first leg match between FC Barcelona and RCD Espanyol at Camp Nou on January 6, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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Lionel Messi has won every individual award imaginable, but now he can add another trophy to his shelf.

For the first time in his career, Messi was named La Liga’s Player of the Month for January.

[ MORE: PL Power Rankings, Vol. VIII ]

It’s hard to believe, but somehow the Barcelona superstar had never won this honor before. Despite winning a record five Ballon D’or trophies as the best player in the world, this trophy had eluded Messi since its inception in 2013.

Messi scored six goals in six January matches as Barcelona sit atop the La Liga table, currently holding a three-point lead over Atletico Madrid.

Despite their dominance in La Liga, this is only the second time a Barcelona player has won this monthly award, as Neymar took home the honor in November of 2015.

USWNT-Mexico preview: Energized Yanks look to keep rolling toward Rio

FRISCO, TX - FEBRUARY 10:  Team USA poses for a photo before play against Costa Rica during 2016 CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying at Toyota Stadium on February 10, 2016 in Frisco, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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The United States women’s national team looks to keep rolling through CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying with a match with Mexico on Saturday.

Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, is again the scene after the Yanks battered Costa Rica 5-0 on Wednesday.

[ MUST WATCH: Christen Press’ dazzling first touch, spin, goal ]

A win over Mexico would move the USWNT into the all-important semifinal, where a win would gain them entry into this Summer’s Olympic Games.

Mexico staged a blowout of its own on Wednesday, cruising past Puerto Rico 6-0 thanks in large part to a hat trick from Maribel Dominguez.

[ VIDEO: Alex Morgan caps off a 12-second, six-pass goal ]

Mexico has only beaten the USWNT twice in history, and only the 2010 Gold Cup semifinal is considered official.

In recent history, the USWNT beat up Mexico 5-1 last year, and thrice in 2014 by a combined score of 15-0. Expect very little to change with an energized, impressive U.S. side on Saturday.

[ SATURDAY: Watch USWNT vs Mexico live online on NBC Sports Live Extra ]