Chelsea's manager Mourinho prepares to bring on substitute Mata during their Champions League soccer match against Basel at Stamford Bridge in London

Absent without leave: Where in the world are Shinji Kagawa and Juan Mata?


Four games into the Premier League season, there are many storylines, questions, concerns, surprises and talking points surrounding each team.

With new managers, we see them taking a squad they have been handed and mold it to the best of their ability into a squad that is theirs, something they can call their own.  Managers love to make their mark on a team, so that they can not only exploit their own strengths, but take as much credit for any subsequent success as possible.

However, some go too far in trying to make a squad their own.  Certain decisions go beyond the realm of “bettering the squad” and cross into the void of obvious squad tinkering for the sole purpose of making a statement.

To me, there are no managerial decisions more shocking thus far than David Moyes and Jose Mourinho banishing Shinji Kagawa and Juan Mata to the depths of their respective squads.

What Moyes and Mourinho have done is take arguably their most creative players and break them.

Juan Mata:

“I think Jose is searching for his team. After their defeat to Basel in the Champions League on Wednesday, I questioned whether Mourinho knew his best starting XI; If you look at the players they’ve got and the opportunities he’s got to change it, I can’t understand – and neither can anyone in football – why Juan Mata isn’t starting.” -Jamie Redknapp, Sky Sports and Daily Mail pundit

Jose Mourinho has decisively – and publicly – excluded the Spaniard from his squad this entire season. He hasn’t been totally absent, starting two matches against Aston Villa and Everton.  However, a closer examination of those matches show he was clearly utilized incorrectly, thrown to the wolves so Mourinho could justify his decision to bench the 25-year-old.

Last season Mata was selected as Chelsea’s Player of the Season by both the fans and the players. He was nominated for Young Player of the Year. And he was selected to the PFA Team of the Season.

Now? Let’s revisit the Aston Villa match from back on August 21st.  With fellow attacking midfielder Oscar also in the lineup, Mata was shoved over onto the wing…at least, that’s what the teamsheets said. In actuality, Mata was a lost man on the pitch.  Have a peek at Oscar’s passing dashboard.  There is a clear, direct purpose to his play, and an attacking mindset.  25 of his 63 passes were in the attacking third, and 26 of his passes went forward.

Now look at Mata’s dashboard. Certainly doesn’t look like a right winger to me. Not only is he spread out all over the pitch, but there’s no purpose to his play. He went 47-of-49 passing, nice. But a closer look shows only 8 of his passes were in the attacking third (and both his misses), and just 9 went forward.  Where’s the creativity? Needless to say, he created no chances to Oscar’s 2. Mata was substituted off in the 65th minute.

Not only is Mata being used sparingly, but when he’s on the pitch he’s being completely misused. Mourinho said he wants Mata to “adapt” to the way “we (Mourinho) want to play.” Adapt? Yes, let’s remold a Team of the Season member to something he isn’t.  That seems logical.

But don’t worry everyone. Mourinho’s going to be playing Mata against Swindon Town midweek in the Capital One Cup, so that should make up for it. Clearly.

Shinji Kagawa:

“Shinji Kagawa is one of the best players in the world and he now plays 20 minutes at Manchester United — on the left wing. My heart breaks. Really, I have tears in my eyes.” -Jurgen Klopp, manager of Borussia Dortmund back in May.

Someone call Harry Potter – Shinji Kagawa’s stolen his invisibility cloak.

A player who was not so long ago a prized possession of a Borussia Dortmund squad reaching new heights at a meteoric pace, Kagawa has since vanished.

source: ReutersIt has been a disappearance of much less publicity than in Mata’s case, making it all the more baffling.  We saw Sunday at the Etihad a Manchester United squad not only with an aging defense prone to speed, but a monstrous black hole in the middle of their attack.

United’s midfield of Michael Carrick, Marouane Fellaini, and Wayne Rooney certainly have their strengths, but with Vincent Kompany latched onto the hip of Rooney the entire match – like white on rice, as they say – it was void of any creativity. Rooney was isolated, stranded on an island, and Kompany pounced on the opportunity to lock his man down.

Against Manchester City, do you know how many times Danny Welbeck received the ball in the penalty area? It happened three times. Do you know how many times Wayne Rooney received the ball in the penalty area? Twice.

Kagawa can pass just as well as Carrick. He can score goals – he bagged 28 in 65 matches with Broussia Dortmund. What Manchester United are missing is Kagawa’s dribbling abilities.

They couldn’t break down Manchester City’s defense partly because they didn’t have anybody on the pitch with the right key to the vault.  They couldn’t pass their way through that defense, with the central midfield trio going 63-of-84 (75%) in the attacking third.  They sure as heck could have used someone to slice the back four open with a good run or two on the ball.  Kagawa.

Here’s a suggestion: Ashley Young was an atrocity on the wing to finish last season, and has been more of the same this year.  Why not replace him on the left side with Danny Welbeck, pair Rooney and Kagawa in the middle, and keep Fellaini to hold behind them? Sure, it’s an attacking lineup, and you lose Carrick’s passing and defense, but the 32-year-old only made two tackles and one interception against City, is that really a major loss? Rooney and Kagawa feeding Robin van Persie is a salivating prospect.

At the very least rotate Kagawa and Rooney. With the mercurial English playmaker out due to injury, Moyes instead turned to the most overrated player in the Premier League in Tom Cleverley. United proceeded to lose 1-0 at Anfield.

If the 4-1 loss to their bitter rivals wasn’t enough of a wake-up call for Moyes, I’m not exactly sure what will change his mind.

Ultimately, it’s the manager’s decisions.  The sad part is, the longer this continues, the more broken Mata and Kagawa, and watching the talent these two possess rot on the bench is more than sad – it’s outrageous.

So whose absence do you think is the more egregious error by their manager? Or do you think Moyes and Mourinho are actually making the right decision?

MLS Power Rankings: Going to the playoffs edition

Seattle Sounders' Nicolas Lodeiro (10), Herculez Gomez, center, and Jordan Morris, right, celebrate a goal by Lodeiro in the first half of an MLS soccer match against FC Dallas, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016, in Frisco, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
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As we prepare for the 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs, which kick off Wednesday night, we take one last shot at MLS power rankings, featuring only the 12 times still fighting in the postseason.

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Which are the sides most likely to represent the East and the West in MLS Cup 2016? Let’s talk it out…

Eastern Conference

1. New York Red Bulls — Bradley Wright-Phillips scored 24 goals this season, including 14 in RBNY’s last 12 games. Sacha Kljestan finished the season with 19 assists, but should have had 20. Not to bury the lead here, but they haven’t lost a game since July 3 (9 wins, 6 draws). That’s an absurd run capped off with four straight wins to finish the regular season. Throw in the fact they’ll host the decisive second leg in every round up until MLS Cup, and it’s hard to see anyone else coming out of the East..

2a. D.C. United — Outside of Sunday’s finale in which Ben Olsen sat 10 of 11 regular staters — you’re not throwing me off your scent, buddy — DCU have destroyed everything and everyone in their path over the last month (four straight wins, by a combined score of 12-3). The strategy is simple: press high, win the ball, get it wide, get it in the box, Patrick Mullins will finish it. If they don’t win it early, they drop into a defensive shell that’ll frustrate you into a rage-quit.

2b. Toronto FC — Here’s my TFC theory: they’re better off playing in the knockout round, because Sebastian Giovinco, who’s only two games back from a month out with injuries, needs that extra bit of sharpness that’s still missing. Everything around the reigning MVP fell into place pretty well with him absent — the midfield diamond still ticks over best with Will Johnson on the field, and he should be back soon — and Jozy Altidore looks like a man possessed. They’re still TFC, though, and until they’re no longer “oh, that TFC,” it’s hard to totally trust them.

4. New York City FC — Is this team good? They won 54 points from 34 games, so of course they’re good on paper, but only three teams conceded more goals on the season (57). Of course, they outscored everyone (62). That’s rarely been the winning formula in the playoffs, though, and David Villa, for every wonderful thing he’s done his first two seasons in MLS, is still only one man.

5. Montreal Impact — Didier Drogba is still a member of this team, right? While he’s mostly inconsequential outside of the Impact lacking an impact forward off the bench, that’s just a bad omen to ride into the postseason, isn’t it? There’s not much to separate Montreal and Philadelphia other than if the Impact are to win a couple games in the playoffs, I know how they do it: Ignacio Piatti turns on video-game mode and draws 20,000 jaws to the floor.

6. Philadelphia Union — The Union, on the other hand, I have no idea what them winning a game looks like — theoretically or literally. It’s been two months since they’ve done it, they don’t remember what it’s like either. Bless Jim Curtin for trotting out a super-young defensive unit out there all season — they’ll be better for it next year — but they simply ran out of steam down the stretch (14 goals conceded in 7 games without a win).

[ MORE: Decision Day madness in the West | And in the East ]

Western Conference

1a. FC Dallas — I came really, really close — like, thisfreakingclose — to putting the Sounders at 1a, and FCD at 1b. The loss Mauro Diaz (torn achilles) last week and the transfer of Fabian Castillo in August would be season-ending blows to, quite literally, every other team in MLS. Yet, this is an FCD squad that is unbelievably deep, embarrassingly rich with talent all over the field, and motivated and prepared by the smartest coach in the league, Oscar Pareja. Papi will cook up a brand new scheme that’ll transform them into an impossible out in the playoffs, rather than the light-em-up attacking juggernaut they would have otherwise been. He is solely responsible for FCD at 1a.

1b. Seattle Sounders — Since Brian Schmetzer was named the interim head coach on July 26, the Sounders’ record is as follows: 8W, 4D, 2L. I could stop right there, and that’d be a solid enough case, but I’d be ignoring Nicolas Lodeiro, who has resurrected the a team that was truly dead when they quit on Sigi Schmid on July 24. Lodeiro’s numbers: 4 goals, 8 assists in 12 games played (all 1,080 minutes). Also of the utmost importance: the emergence of Cristian Roldan, a willing and able midfield runner who might just extend the career of Osvaldo Alonso by two or three years. You do not want to see this team in the playoffs.

3. Colorado Rapids — Speaking of teams you don’t want to see, purely from a standpoint of “they are annoyingly difficult to play against,” the Pablo Mastroeni’s Rapids conceded 32 goals in 34 games this season. If there’s one team in MLS 2016 that simply will not beat itself, it’s the Rapids. Their ceiling is mostly limited, but their bottom-out floor is higher than perhaps anyone else’s.

4. LA Galaxy — Saying the following goes against everything we’ve witnessed the last decade or so, but the Galaxy are something of a non-starter heading into these playoffs, from a standpoint of “we have absolutely no idea who or what this team is.” Robbie Keane played just 17 games all year (just six since the beginning of August), and it’s pretty undeniably Giovani dos Santos’ team now (14 goals, 12 assists). Gyasi Zardes hasn’t played since Aug. 27, and he may or may not come back to play in the playoffs after breaking his foot. Steven Gerrard has played 118 minutes in the last 10 games. That’s a whole lot of questions, and very few answers.

5. Sporting Kansas City — A shaky defensive team prone to costly mistakes at the most inopportune of times; no real focal point offensively, from a strategic standpoint. They do have a 16-goal-scorer in Dom Dwyer, and a dynamic playmaker (at his best) in Benny Feilhaber, but but the supporting cast has been mostly “meh” all season.

6. Real Salt Lake — The final seven games of the regular season is not a great time for your longest winless run of the campaign. Four losses, three draws in the months of September and October.

Combined rankings

2. FCD
3. Sounders
4. DCU
5. TFC
6. Rapids
8. Galaxy
9. Impact
10. SKC
11. RSL
12. Union

Serie A: Napoli end losing streak; Inter Milan beaten again

CROTONE, ITALY - OCTOBER 23:   Josè Maria Callejon (R) and Dries Mertens of Napoli celebrate the opening goal during the Serie A match between FC Crotone and SSC Napoli at Stadio Comunale Ezio Scida on October 23, 2016 in Crotone, Italy.  (Photo by Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images)
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ROME (AP) A visit to last-place Crotone was just what Napoli needed to end a three-match losing streak.

Roma also won against a lowly opponent, beating Palermo to reclaim second place from AC Milan.

Inter Milan, meanwhile, lost its third straight Serie A match to increase the pressure on coach Frank de Boer.

Despite losing center forward Manolo Gabbiadini to a red card, 10-man Napoli won 2-1 Sunday to spoil Crotone’s first top-division game in its home stadium.

Jose Callejon scored 17 minutes in and Nikola Maksimovic doubled the lead in the 33rd, shortly after Gabbiadini was sent off.

Aleandro Rosi pulled one back for Crotone in the 89th.

Gabbiadini was on the ground after being fouled by Gian Marco Ferrari and reacted by flicking his boot into the back of Ferrari’s leg.

It was Gabbiadini’s first red card in 153 career Serie A matches.

Ferrari was shown a yellow.

Both of Napoli’s goals were aided by poor defense.

Callejon redirected the ball in by the far post after a cross from Dries Mertens was deflected right toward him. Recently called up to Spain’s national team, Callejon has been involved in a league-best eight goals this season with six goals and two assists.

Maksimovic also scored near the far post, following a corner.

Napoli had lost two straight in Serie A and was also beaten by Besiktas in the Champions League this week.

Napoli is fourth, four points behind Juventus and two behind Roma and Milan, which beat Juve 1-0 on Saturday.

Promoted to the top division for the first time in its 106-year history, Crotone played its first three home matches 600 kilometers (375 miles) away in Pescara while its Ezio Scida stadium was expanded to meet league regulations.

The Calabrian club remained with one point.

“We did well in a situation that could have been very difficult, because Crotone was playing at home for the first time, the pitch wasn’t worthy of a professional match and we were down to 10 men after a half-hour,” Napoli manager Maurizio Sarri said. “I’m happy that the lads will rediscover some confidence.”

Here’s a look at the rest of the action in the Italian league Sunday:

Mohamed Salah scored from a tight angle shortly after the half-hour mark after being set up by Edin Dzeko.

Leandro Paredes made it 2-0 in the 51st with a free kick that surprised Palermo goalkeeper Josip Posavec.

Dzeko added another in the 68th, finishing off a pretty series of passes with a low shot from the edge of the area for his league-best eighth of the season – the same number of goals he scored in his 31 appearances last season.

Robin Quaison pulled one back for Palermo in the 80th but Stephan El Shaarawy quickly restored Roma’s three-goal advantage.

Mauricio Pinilla scored the winner for Atalanta with a penalty two minutes from time.

After Davide Santon was whistled for a foul on Franck Kessie, Pinilla drilled the spot kick into the top left corner, leaving Samir Handanovic no chance even though the Inter goalkeeper guessed the right direction.

Andrea Masiello had put Atalanta in front with an early header and Eder equalized for Inter with a free kick after the break.

While Inter defeated Juventus in September, it’s been a difficult debut campaign in Italy for De Boer, who was hired when Roberto Mancini resigned less than two weeks before the season started.

“The only thing we can do is work hard to get out of this situation,” De Boer said. “I want to see the squad have more courage with the ball. … It’s a tough time for everyone.”

Inter captain Mauro Icardi failed to put a single shot on target after being punished by the club for his comments about the team’s hard-core “ultra” fans in his autobiography.

Atalanta, which extended its unbeaten streak to four matches, moved up to eighth while Inter dropped to 14th.

Torino and Lazio remained level on points, six points behind Juventus, after a draw that was determined with a penalty kick from Torino’s Adem Ljajic in added time.

After Iago Falque put Torino ahead midway through the first half, Ciro Immobile equalized for Lazio against his former club in the 71st with an acrobatic effort.

Substitute Alessandro Murgia scored his first Serie A goal in the 84th for Lazio before Marco Parolo was whistled for a questionable hand ball to set up Ljajic’s spot kick.

Nikola Kalinic scored a hat trick and Federico Bernardeschi added two more goals as Fiorentina won 5-3 at Cagliari.

Sassuolo and Bologna drew 1-1 in an Emilia-Romagna derby, Empoli and Chievo Verona played to a 0-0 draw in which Chievo protested for a goal even though goal-line technology showed that the ball wasn’t fully in; and French forward Cyril scored twice for Udinese in a 3-1 win over visiting Pescara.

Andrew Dampf on Twitter:

La Liga: Real Madrid win late, stay top; Atleti lose to Sevilla

MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 23: Alvaro Morata of Real Madrid CF celebrates scoring their second goal during the La Liga match between Real Madrid CF and Athletic Club de Bilbao at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on October 23, 2016 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
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MADRID (AP) Coach Jorge Sampaoli felt Sevilla needed a big win against a top opponent to establish itself as a true contender in Spain.

He got just that on Sunday as his team defeated previously unbeaten Atletico Madrid 1-0 to stay near the top of the Spanish league.

French midfielder Steven N’Zonzi netted the winner in the 73rd minute at a packed Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan Stadium to give the hosts their third straight win.

“It was an important game to consolidate ourselves against a team that looked unbeatable,” Sampaoli said. “We did well against one of the best teams in the world. This victory makes me proud.”

Sevilla, which has won six straight at home, reached 20 points from nine rounds, one point behind Real Madrid, which is top after a 2-1 home win against Athletic Bilbao.

Barcelona, which defeated Valencia 3-2 Saturday thanks to an injury-time penalty kick converted by Lionel Messi, is third with 19 points.

“It’s going to be tight like this the entire season,” Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said.

There had been some early doubts about Sampaoli as Sevilla lost in the Spanish Super Cup to Barcelona and the UEFA Super Cup to Real Madrid. But after the up-and-down start, the Argentine coach has finally been able to put Sevilla on track. As well as contending in Spain, the Andalusian club is also in a good position to advance to the knockout stages of the Champions League.

Atletico, which had the lead coming into the weekend, dropped to fifth place, three points behind Madrid.

Diego Simeone’s team played with 10 men from the 77th on Sunday because of a second yellow card shown to midfielder Jorge “Koke” Resurreccion.

Sampaoli made key adjustments at halftime, allowing his team to take control of the game and earn the hard-fought victory under pouring rain in Seville.

N’Zonzi scored the winner on a fast breakaway, speeding past two defenders after receiving a great throughball from striker Luciano Vietto. The Frenchman entered the area and calmly sent a low shot into the far corner as Atletico goalkeeper Jan Oblak charged from the net.

Real Madrid needed an 83rd-minute winner by substitute Alvaro Morata to earn a hard-fought win against Athletic Bilbao.

Karim Benzema put Madrid ahead just seven minutes into the game at the Santiago Bernabeu, but Sabin Merino equalized in the 27th and held on for most of the match.

Morata, celebrating his 24th birthday, scored from close range less than 10 minutes after replacing Benzema. Athletic goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz made the initial save but Morata persisted and found the open net off the rebound.

“I feel like a 10-year-old,” Morata said. “We won and we are in the lead, it couldn’t have been better.”

It was Madrid’s second straight win after three consecutive draws in the league.

Madrid and Villarreal are the only unbeaten clubs in the league after nine rounds.

Athletic is sixth on 15 points, six behind Madrid.

French striker Cedric Bakambu scored the winner in second-half injury time for Villarreal, but it was Las Palmas’ Kevin-Prince Boateng who attracted all the attention with a remarkable goal before halftime.

Boateng’s side volley from inside the area came after a mid-air, back-heel pass by Pedro Tana, who flicked the ball across the area for Boateng to shoot firmly into the corner.

Still unbeaten in the league this season, Villarreal has won three of its last four games and is in fourth place with 19 points.

Celta Vigo rebounded from two consecutive losses with a comfortable home win over Deportivo La Coruna behind a pair of goals by striker Iago Aspas.

After a 4-3 loss to Barcelona and a 5-0 defeat against Villarreal, Celta cruised to victory against struggling Deportivo to move to eighth place with 13 points.

The teams were tied 1-1 when Aspas converted a 60th-minute penalty kick. Chilean midfielder Fabian Orellana added to the lead in the 78th and Aspas closed the scoring in the 83rd at the Balaidos Stadium.

Deportivo, which has lost four of its last five games, dropped to 17th in the 20-team standings.

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MLS Decision Day: New York goes 1-2; RBNY kings of the East again

HARRISON, NJ - MARCH 22:  Bradley Wright-Phillips #99 of New York Red Bulls celebrates a goal against the D.C. United during their match at Red Bull Arena on March 22, 2015 in Harrison, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
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Final scores

Philadelphia Union 0-2 New York Red Bulls
New York City FC 4-1 Columbus Crew SC
Toronto FC 3-2 Chicago Fire
Orlando City SC 4-2 D.C. United
New England Revolution 3-0 Montreal Impact

Final standings

1. New York Red Bulls
2. New York City FC
3. Toronto FC
4. D.C. United
5. Montreal Impact
6. Philadelphia Union

[ MORE: Playoff Picture — All the Decision Day scenarios ]

The moments that mattered

4:33 p.m. ET — Fagundez curls one in, keeps the Revs’ heart beating — It’s going to take a lot more of these from the Revs, but you’ve got to start somewhere.

4:33 p.m. ET — DCU give one up to Molino, still 4th — Ben Olsen’s reserve side got off to a rocky start.

4:41 p.m. ET — Kaka puts ORL 2-0 up against DCU’s reserves — Fortunately for DCU, MTL don’t seem to want to finish 4th either.

4:38 p.m. ET — De Leeuw puts CHI 1-0 up on TOR — Losing to the worst team in the league on the final day of the season with a chance to secure a bye in the knockout round… it would be so TFC.

4:48 p.m. ET — BWP puts RBNY up, seals the Golden Boot — Anything but a loss, and RBNY finish top of the East. Bradley Wright-Phillips is doing what he does.

5:03 p.m. ET — Saborio pulls one back for DCU, still in 4th — ORL gifted DCU a way back into the game.

5:05 p.m. ET — Giovinco brings TFC level, back into the race for 2nd — A little late to the party, but TFC have awoken.

5:05 p.m. ET — Villa puts NYCFC 1-0 up, still stuck in 2nd — NYCFC keeping the pressure on RBNY, and keeping TFC at arm’s length.

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

5:28 p.m. ET — Higuita restores ORL’s two-goal lead — Top shelf, far post. DCU not afraid of playing on the road in the knockout round, apparently.

5:34 p.m. ET — Giovinco sets up Morrow for 2-1, a point off 2nd — All TFC need now is a CLB equalizer, and they’d take the second knockout-round bye.

5:36 p.m. ET — Muyl wraps up the top spot for RBNY — That’ll just about do it for RBNY, the undisputed kings of the East.

5:39 p.m. ET — Kamara heads CLB to 1-1; NYCFC drop to 3rd — The best five minutes of TFC’s season? Might just be.

5:43 p.m. ET — Osorio makes it 3-1 for TFC — Nine minutes change the outlook of TFC’s entire season.

5:55 p.m. ET — Harrison puts NYCFC back in front, back in 2nd — TFC can score all the goals they want, but NYCFC only need to win to finish 2nd.

5:57 p.m. ET — Shelton makes it 3-1 NYCFC; safe in 2nd — The worst three minutes of TFC’s season? Might just be.