Marco Di Vaio got in several physical altercations, including when he got in Corey Ashe's face early in the game. It was Ashe's throat that Di Vaio put his hand around to see a red card in the last minute on Thursday. (Photo: Bob Levey/AP)

What We Learned from Houston Dynamo’s 3-0 shellacking of Montreal Impact

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Five thoughts on the Houston Dynamo’s easy 3-0 win over the Montreal Impact in the MLS Eastern Conference play-in game on Thursday night:

1) The Montreal Impact’s epic meltdown doesn’t make it look good. — Frustration with losing 3-0 is understandable, but a full-blown temper tantrum from one of the team’s supposed leaders was tough to watch. Marco Di Vaio lost his mind a little bit at the end of the game, undoubtedly not helped by his lack of attacking support all game long.

Before Di Vaio put his hand around Corey Ashe’s throat, and Andrés Romero kicked out at Kofi Sarkodie while he was on the ground after the whistle had already blown, Hernán Bernardello’s strange lapse of judgment in giving away a penalty to Oscar Boniek García set the tone.

With two defenders in support, Bernardello had no need to lunge into a tackle on García, which ended up giving away the goal that effectively killed the game in the first half. It wasn’t just the incidents themselves; it was the people making the mistakes — two Designated Players and a top young prospect — that was hard to swallow.

(MORE: Houston Dynamo 3-0 Montreal Impact: Quick start lifts Houston to next round)

source: AP
Marco Di Vaio got in several physical altercations, including when he got in Corey Ashe’s face early in the game. It was Ashe’s throat that Di Vaio put his hand around to see a red card in the last minute on Thursday. (Photo: Bob Levey/AP)

2) This was the Houston Dynamo everybody expects to see in the playoffs. — Despite a shaky regular season, head coach Dominic Kinnear knows how to win in the MLS playoffs, as does Los Angeles Galaxy coach Bruce Arena. Even if they finish in fourth or fifth place, those teams have proven they can be dangerous and claw their way to MLS Cup finals from anywhere.

It was an inspired performance all around, from Tally Hall staying focused and making two big saves on Di Vaio to keep the Italian frustrated, to Ricardo Clark playing like a 2009 version of himself, to Will Bruin rediscovering his Mr. Playoffs personality.

After just half an hour, the teams on the field were mirror images: Houston looked like a team that’s been in playoffs before, while Montreal looked increasingly flustered and couldn’t muster much more of an attack than kicking it toward an offside Di Vaio.

(MORE: Bruce Arena: ‘I don’t know if anyone has the formula’ for MLS playoff success)

3) Center back experiments aren’t working out in the two playoff games we’ve seen so far. — Nelson Rivas didn’t play a minute in the regular season, largely due to his recurring injuries, and it showed on Thursday night. Like the Colorado Rapids playing German Mera at center back against Seattle Sounders FC on Wednesday, this gamble didn’t pay off.

Rivas was lucky not to see a straight red card in the 35th minute after getting his arm in Giles Barnes’ face, but he finished the deed when he received a second yellow for a similar infraction in the 70th minute. That began the wave of red cards for Montreal and ended the game, as Bruin scored again two minutes after Rivas left the field.

4) Will Bruin broke out of his slump in a big way on Thursday. — Forget the last five regular-season matches. Bruin scores goals in big games.

The young forward scored four goals in the 2012 playoffs, and his brace on Thursday gave him half that total already in 2013. He will need to be in top form for Houston to have any chance against the New York Red Bulls in the conference semifinals, where he will match up against behemoth center backs Jámison Olave and Markus Holgersson.

(MORE: PST Man of the Match: Will Bruin)

5) The Dynamo gives itself a chance to reverse poor regular-season results against the New York Red Bulls with that performance. — Kinnear’s side can use the play-in game to create momentum and sustain a long playoff run, as it did in 2012. But this time, the next opponent will be tougher than last year.

New York owned Houston in the regular season in all three matches, at home and away. The Red Bulls won all three matches and put up an aggregate score of 9-1 across those games — two of which were at BBVA Compass Stadium. If they can get another good result in Texas this weekend, it will be a long road back.

To sustain a serious upset threat, Houston must win the first leg of the series, preferably by more than one goal. As is true throughout the playoffs, the Dynamo’s biggest game of the season is just around the corner.

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.

Watch Live: Chelsea vs. Hull City (Lineups & Live Stream)

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 22:  Diego Costa of Chelsea warms up prior to 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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Diego Costa has returned from his short absence as the Brazilian starts in front of the home fans at Stamford Bridge live at 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN or live online at NBCSports.com.

Costa had missed the 3-0 win over Leicester City with what was officially tabbed as a back injury, but with reports swirling that the striker had been unsettled by a big offer from China and a bust-up with management. Now, he’s back after missing just a single match.

[ WATCH LIVE: Chelsea vs. Hull City live online at NBCSports.com ]

John Terry does not make the Chelsea squad despite returning from suspension, with Kurt Zouma on the bench in relief Antonio Conte‘s preferred back three.

Hull City is without leading scorer Robert Snodgrass, a big loss for a player who has struggled with injury problems the last two years. David Meyler returned to training this week and is on the bench.

LINEUPS

Chelsea: Courtois; Azpilicueta, David Luiz, Cahill; Moses, Kante, Matic, Alonso; Pedro, Diego Costa, Hazard.
Subs: 
Begovic, Ake, Zouma, Chalobah, Fabregas, Willian, Batshuayi.

Hull City: Jakupovic; Maguire, Dawson, Davies, Elabdellaoui; Mason, Huddlestone, Clucas, Robertson; Evandro, Hernández.
Subs: Marshall, Meyler, Maloney, Diomande, Niasse, Tymon, Bowen.

Arsenal 2-1 Burnley: Arsenal into second in stunning fashion

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What appeared a straightforward result for Arsenal ended in stunning fashion as a pair of penalties in stoppage time saw Arsenal through to second in the Premier League table.

A 59th minute header by Shkodran Mustafi had Arsenal 1-0 in front, and it remained that way for much of the game. Granit Xhaka was sent off again in the 65th minute, but it didn’t appear to make much of a difference to the Gunners.

Then, things exploded in stoppage time with seven added minutes due to earlier injuries. Referee Jon Moss pointed to the spot two minutes into stoppage time for a kick from Francis Coquelin, and Andre Gray buried the chance to level things up, appearing to have wrapped up a point. But in the final tick of seven added minutes, Arsenal themselves earned a penalty when Ben Mee produced a high boot to the face of Laurent Koscielny, leaving the referee no choice but to point to the spot. Alexis Sanchez cooly went down the middle, and Arsenal came out on top.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Burnley started brightly, but it was Arsenal that had the best early chance. With six minutes gone by, Alexis Sanchez broke down the left and delivered a good ball in, but Olivier Giroud‘s flick header was from too far out, and the Frenchman probably should have let it go with the ball set to arrive at the feet of Aaron Ramsey.

That chance sparked Arsenal to begin pummeling the Burnley box, mostly up the left edge with Sanchez. The visitors packed in the box, forcing the Gunners to get creative, and Mesut Ozil fired wide on the half-volley past 20 minutes.

Laurent Koscielny was needed at the back after a mistake in possession by his defensive partner Shkodran Mustafi, but the Frenchman was calm, cool, and collected to dispossess Andre Gray on the break. Koscielny had a chance on the other end as well, past the half-hour mark as he headed a free-kick on net but it looped agonizingly over the bar, settling on the top netting.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Arsenal continued to attack the packed-in Burnley box, and Sanchez whipped a shot in three minutes before halftime that swerved just wide of the post. The Gunners kept at it right out of the break, as Grioud fed Ramsey with a header, but the Welsh international tried a scorpion kick, and it went over. Sanchez fired a fizzing shot on net on 50 minutes, but it curled just beyond the top right corner. Arsenal should have had a penalty, with Mustafi going down under a silly challenge from Gray, but no call was awarded.

The hosts finally and deservedly broke through in the 59th minute as Mustafi expertly headed in off a corner. The header was from a very tight angle, as Mustafi met the ball ahead of the near post, angling it all the way across the face of goal and tucked inside the far corner past a diving Tom Heaton.

Arsenal was pegged back when Granit Xhaka earned his second red card of the Premier League season for a two-footed lunge on Steven Defour. Xhaka had passed the ball straight to Defour and as the Burnley midfielder distributed it to a teammate, the Swiss international went in studs showing, and after a conference with the assistant referee, head official Jon Moss sent Xhaka off.

With 15 minutes remaining, Burnley lost a steady man as Dean Marney was forced off after a heavy challenge with Mesut Ozil that earned him a yellow card. The stretcher was required after what appeared to be a serious injury to his right knee which took the full brunt of Ozil’s weight in an awkward position.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

As the game wound to a close, there were seven added minutes due to the Marney injury. Early in stoppage time, Burnley won a penalty and appeared to have earned themselves a point. Substitute Francis Coquelin kicked Ashley Barnes in the lower leg, and the penalty was awarded. Gray buried the penalty down the middle, and things were level with just minutes remaining.

Arsenal poured forward, and with an angry Arsene Wenger sent to the tunnel, the Gunners produced a winning moment. A free-kick looped in to the far post, and Mee’s boot contacted Koscielny in the side of the head, again forcing the referee to award the penalty. Sanchez broke out the panenka finish, dinking the ball down the middle and in for a last-gasp 2-1 lead. Replays show the penalty was the correct decision, but Koscielny was in an offside position when the delivery came in, the flag failing to punish the Gunners.

The win moves Arsenal past Liverpool and Tottenham, into second place with 47 points, five behind leaders Chelsea who are yet to play this weekend. Burnley, meanwhile, remain with just a single point all season away from home, sitting in 13th place with 26 points, having been passed by Southampton who won in the early Sunday match.

VIDEO: Claudio Ranieri admits tactical mistakes after another road defeat

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Ever-gracious Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri has taken full responsibility for the Foxes’ recent struggles, claiming his lineup tinkering has fallen flat.

The Italian said following the 3-0 defeat to Southampton that he has tried a few different formations to maximize his players’ abilities, but that it hasn’t worked out.

[ RECAP: Leicester falls on the road again at Southampton ]

“I think the last two matches I changed the shape to try and help my players to play better and find the right solution, but maybe I make mistakes. I am wrong against Chelsea when I play with three at the back, and also today when I wanted to play with a diamond. My players are used to playing with a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-2-3-1 and they recognize the position, the game, everything, the movement. I wanted to give something more, but I make a mistake, I was wrong.”

Honesty sure is Ranieri’s best policy, and deflecting criticism from his players is clearly the tactic here. Managers often like to play down the importance of tactical formations at times, but here it clearly has weighed on Ranieri’s mind, who may revert back to his tested formations.

[ MORE: Is Pep Guardiola unhappy in the Premier League? ]

“I think it’s much better to give to them what they know very well. I look and they had to push a lot with this system and this mentality, and keep going and improve of course.”

Whatever the case, something will have to change with Leicester City this season if they wish to continue in the English top-flight. The Foxes have gone all season without a single away win, and they’re 15th in the table with just 21 points, five above the relegation zone.