Jimmy Nielsen, Aurelien Collin, Kelyn Rowe

What we learned from Saturday’s New England-Sporting Kansas City playoff match

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  • Football lines. Sigh

For all the wonderful strides in Major League Soccer, every now and then the smack in the face arrives, the one that reminds everyone the league still has miles to go.

Saturday the reminder blow came from both playoff venues, one outside Boston and one in Seattle. In both cases, games were played on artificial turf, as usual per the facility. The difference was in the dizzying American football lines, as both venues prepare to host NFL games to come.

It’s not just that it clobbers the game’s aesthetics. In New England’s case, the NFL’s Patriots – the Kraft family owns both teams that play at Gillette Stadium, the MLS club and the NFL organization – shorten the soccer field so that it won’t intrude on the Patriots’ end zone logo.

So the field plays at about 106 yards, just barely enough to comply with FIFA regulations. A shorter field, combined with the fast, skidding pace we always see from artificial turf, made for a hectic match. One that was pretty hard on the eyes, too – hardly what the league ideally wants to showcase in its post-season money matches.

  • Claudio Bieler did not travel for KC

When a Designated Player cannot get into the starting lineup, trouble is a’ brewin’.

When a DP doesn’t even travel, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.

Argentine striker Bieler lost his place in manager Peter Vermes’ starting lineup lately for Kansas City. It had to do with a groin injury, we think; from there it’s all kind of murky. Did he come back unfit? Or is he just turning out not to be what the club expected?

Bieler started well enough in his first year at Sporting Park, among the league’s leading scorers early in the season. But his scoring fell off the table in the summer – and then he lost his place in the lineup.

(MORE: New England’s 2-1 win provides tentative margin for second leg)

  • Talking about the refereeing, and the controversial goal

The game wasn’t without controversy, as Andy Dorman’s opener was very close to offside. (Hat tip to journalist Travis Clark, who summed it up best like this: “Consensus from my Twitter feed about that goal: clearly onside and offside.” Exactly.)

It was an extremely tough call. I keep watching it, and I still cannot be sure.

Otherwise, referee Ismail Elfath probably managed this helter-skelter mess of a match about as well as it could have been. Elfath is one of the less experienced MLS referees, but generally one who can manage players better than some of the older hands.

Remember, Sporting KC led the league in fouls. That’s a statistical fact. Not so easily proven through data is this: Sporting is the league’s best team at the cynical art of tactical fouling. So, that’s a lot for the man in the middle to sort out, and Elfath wasn’t completely overmatched by it.

Sporting KC right back Chance Myers may hear from the league about twice getting his hands to the face/head of New England players. And so may New England’s Dimitry Imbongo, who always had the elbows up high too often.

By the end, seven players were booked.

If notoriously physical KC to advance, its depth will surely be tested. Two post-season bookings will mean that a player sits out the following match.

  • Kansas City didn’t respond well

Sporting Kansas City got just a little lucky in getting that absolutely massive 69th minute goal, cutting New England’s lead in half. First, Imbongo’s bad foul along the flank gave the visitors a free kick, which turned into an opportunity and a goal.

It happened at a moment when Sporting KC was falling absolutely to pieces, not dealing at all with the controversial goal – or with the deficit that came with it. Clearly frustrated, they were fouling and missing runners – which is exactly how New England’s Kelyn Rowe slipped in for the Revs’ second strike.

It was all so reminiscent of last year’s playoff ouster – from which Sporting KC apparently learned absolutely nothing. Peter Vermes’ team fell behind by a goal at Houston. Rather than playing it safe and sticking with the original plan, SKC pushed forward. Instead of concocting an equalizer, they were exposed and gave up a second goal to Houston … which was one goal too many for the furious return leg.

It’s a two-game series, guys. You know that, right?

(MORE: Man of the Match is New England’s Matt Reis)

  • Revs young attackers have a hard time

Revolution 13-goal scorer Diego Fagundez? He was virtually nowhere to be found Saturday. It was, after all, the 18-year-old’s first playoff game. And dealing with Myers along SKC’s right side is never a bunch of fun.

And second-year man Kelyn Rowe certainly made a huge moment with his game-winner – but he wasn’t having a great match before that.

In all fairness, attacking players with good matches weren’t really to be found at all Saturday at Gillette. The field was small and fast, and both defenses were in charge.

The exception early was Kansas City’s Graham Zusi, who was able to find just enough space to do a little bit of creating for his team. Zusi was the conductor on the only three first-half chances, all from the visitors. But he was quiet after intermission, as the Revolution gained some possession and managed to put a foothold on the game.

Once again, the match highlights from NBCSN:

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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.