Manuel Pellegrini already proving his worth at Manchester City

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Unsettled prior to taking the field at the Etihad Stadium, Newcastle proved an easier opponent than most expect. That they were already underdogs meant Manchester City, one of the Premier League’s favorites, were likely to roll over the Magpies tonight. And they did. The game proved a much easier debut than Manuel Pellegrini could have possibly expected.

Given how City played from the opening whistle, however, it’s impossible not to give the Citizens’ new manager a huge dose of credit. Each weekend we see good teams overwhelm bad ones, but it’s relatively rare that we see the sword swung from the opening moments. For every 7-0 shellacking Barcelona gives an opponent, you’ll see handful of dominant but less ruthless performances from teams like Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid and Chelsea. But while creating four chances in the first six minutes, City began with an intensity that spoke to their preparation.

Still, attitude is only one facet of a team’s preparedness. Another is having a plan in place, and in the way City executed, there was no doubt you were watching a Manuel Pellegrini team. The formation — a fluid 4-4-2 using two interiores above the midfield’s sitting pair — was reminiscent of what Pellegrini’s used elsewhere, most successfully at Villarreal. Possession-based, though favoring opportunism over gratuitous ball-hogging, Manchester City’s architect would have been obvious had you missed his spring arrival.

Perhaps because they’re broadly based on a 4-4-2 system, Pellegrini’s ways produce a particular kind of balance, one that can manifest as the today’s dominance or the opportunism we saw last spring from Málaga. While pushing Borussia Dortmund to the brink in Champions League, Málaga weren’t afforded the same control City had today, but while maintaining a straight forward approach that helps ensure a confidence of movement and a certainty of position, the system is proved versatile. It has all the virtues Roy Hodgson espouses of his 4-4-2’s, yet augmented with elements of flexibility and style — allowing talented players more room to read and adjust to each others’ tendencies — Pellegrini’s approach product is more attractive. It’s also more likely to work with extremely talented, more ambitious teams.

This was why so many were high on Pellegrini’s move to Manchester – why former Barcelona executives Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain were so keen to bring him from Málaga after Pep Guardiola chose Munich. His spells at Villarreal, Real Madrid, and Málaga never won leagues (as Roberto Mancini’s backers noted), but they were also never favored to do so. His accomplishments at those clubs (second place finish; second-highest all-time season points total; Champions League quarterfinal appearance), augmented by his titles in South America, are more than enough to justify Pellegrini’s support.

Ultimately, days like todays will do more to win over doubters than anything on Pellegrini’s CV. Those who didn’t want Mancini fired aren’t holding grudges, but when the inevitable down points of the season befall City, it will help to have them convinced. With a couple more performances like today’s, City fans will be soon be Pellegrini faithful.

Barcelona plan Cruyff tribute at club’s training center

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) One year after his death, Barcelona says it will name the future stadium at its training center after Dutch great Johan Cruyff.

The new stadium at Barcelona’s training center just outside the Catalan city will be called “Johan Cruyff Stadium” in honor of the club’s former player and coach.

Barcelona says in a statement that “the most emblematic building in the facility where future Barca players are coached is to be named after somebody who played such a central role in fostering youth talent at the club.”

Barcelona also says it will commission a “commemorative sculpture” of Cruyff, who died of lung cancer on March 24 last year at age 68. The statue will be placed at Barcelona’s main Camp Nou stadium.

Cruyff is largely credited with launching Barcelona’s era of trophy success, both as a player and a coach.

As a player, Cruyff joined Barcelona midseason in 1973 and led the middle-of-the-table team to its first national title in a decade.

He later returned as a coach and guided Barcelona to four consecutive Spanish leagues from 1991-94 and the club’s first European Cup in 1992.

“I think the tributes are very warming,” said Cruyff’s son, Jordi Cruyff. “It sort of changes the sadness that we might feel as family to lose a father, a husband and a grandfather. It changes to a certain kind of pride to understand that he left something behind.”

MLS Snapshot: Defense optional — Crew SC outlast Timbers, 3-2

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The game in 100 words (or less): As far as teams who get out in the open field and score the lion’s share of their goals on the counter-attacking, there aren’t many MLS teams better than Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers. The two sides met Saturday night at MAPFRE Stadium, site of their MLS Cup 2015 clash, and lived up to their reputations. Of the five goals scored, two were notched on flat-out counters and two more came to pass through quick transitional movements. Portland (9 points) dropped their first points of the season, falling 3-2 to goals scored by Justin Meram, Ola Kamara and Niko Hansen, while Crew SC have back-to-back wins and find themselves level on points (7) with the New York Red Bulls with each side having played four games.

[ MORE: Saturday’s MLS (afternoon) roundup ]

Three Four Five moments that mattered

4′ — Asprilla opens the scoring early on — 2017 Crew SC defending, same as 2016 Crew SC defending.

11′ — Meram fires home the rebound for 1-1 — One of Portland’s biggest weaknesses last season was their set-piece defending. Looks like not much has changed.

19′ — Higuain feeds Kamara for a 2-1 lead — The question mark that Portland will eventually have to answer is this: How much, if at all, have they improved defensively in the open field? Based on this Crew SC counter-attack, the answer might be “not much.”

45+3′ — Adi recovers to make it 2-2 — Everything Adi does these days (even the bad things, like this first touch) ends up being good.

84′ — Hansen cleans up at the back post for 3-2 — Jake Gleeson made a spectacular reaction save to deny Kamara his second goal of the game, but the rookie, making his MLS debut, was in the right place at the right time.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Men of the match: Wil Trapp

Goalscorers: Asprilla (4′), Meram (11′), Kamara (19′), Adi (45+3′), Hansen (84′)

Andorra’s 11-year, 58-game losing streak is over

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Rarely has a scoreless stalemate in front of the home fans tasted so sweet.

But 11 years of nothing but losing will do that to a team.

Andorra’s 0-0 draw with fellow minnow Faroe Islands in World Cup qualifying on Saturday ended its run of 58 competitive defeats.

It was the first point in qualifying for the Pyrenees mountain principality, population 80,000, since a scoreless draw with Finland in 2005.

Faroe Islands finished with 10 men after Joan Edmundsson was booked a second time with 15 minutes to play.

World Cup qualifiers: Dutch disaster persists; Greece hold Belgium

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A roundup of all of Saturday’s World Cup qualifying fixtures, as Groups A, B and H hit the halfway point in Europe…

[ MORE: USA 6-0 Honduras | Three things we learned | Player ratings ]

Bulgaria 2-0 Netherlands

Spas Delev scored both Bulgarian goals (5th and 20th minutes) to secure all three points and send Danny Blind’s Netherlands side (7 points) into fourth place in Group A, six points back of leaders France and three back of second-place (qualifying playoffs) Sweden.

17-year-old Matthijs de Ligt was handed his international debut for the Dutch; he was ultimately at fault for both of Delev’s goals; he was subbed off at halftime (as was Georginio Wijnaldum).

Luxembourg 1-3 France

Olivier Giroud scored twice (28th and 77th minutes) for France, and Antoine Griezmann added the other (37th minute – penalty kick), as Les Bleus maintained their three-point lead in Group A. Kylian Mbappe, Monaco’s 18-year-old rising star, made his international debut in the 78th minute, when he replaced Dimitri Payet.

Portugal 3-0 Hungary

Cristiano Ronaldo bagged the 69th and 70th goals of his international career (36th and 65th minutes), as Portugal (12 points) kept pace with an unbeaten Switzerland side (15 points) which managed a 1-0 victory over Latvia to keep their 100-percent record intact. Andre Silva scored the opener (32nd minute) for Portugal, the 21-year-old Porto striker’s fifth goal in six international appearances.

Belgium 1-1 Greece

Romelu Lukaku‘s 89th-minute rescued a point for Group H leaders Belgium (13 points), but it did little to mask an otherwise uninspiring performance from Roberto Martinez’s side. Kostas Mitroglu put Greece ahead in the first minute of the second half, but Panagiotis Tachtsidis saw his second yellow of the game in the 65th minute, and that was the start of Greece’s unraveling. The draw was just enough to keep Greece (11 points) in second, ahead of Bosnia-Herzegovina, whose 5-0 thrashing of Gibraltar moved them to 10 points with a superior goal differential.

Elsewhere in UEFA’s World Cup qualifying

Group A

Sweden 4-0 Belarus

Group B

Switzerland 1-0 Latvia
Andorra 0-0 Faroe Islands

Group H

Bosnia-Herzegovina 5-0 Gibraltar
Cyprus 0-0 Estonia