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What we learned from Sunday’s Houston Dynamo-New York Red Bulls draw

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Mike Petke gets the tactics right

The Red Bulls may have squandered a chance to truly take command in this series, but they still stand well positioned. Houston’s big second half effort, mostly about pride and want-to, was sufficient for the draw.

But none of that changes this fact: the Red Bulls had the right plan once again for BBVA Compass Stadium.

The field is small, so possession within the cramped workings is never easy here. So manager Mike Petke and his team really didn’t bother. Rather, they just sat and waited for their chances to counter. If Houston did have time to get into defensive shape, the balls from New York’s end were aimed into Tim Cahill’s head. Again, no reason to dilly dally with possession on the small field. (And one without much grass, as the growing season is over in Houston, something that made retaining the ball a little trickier still.)

The Red Bulls were confident that Houston’s central midfield duo, Ricardo Clark or Warren Creavalle, for all their positive attributes, would lose possession enough in the middle to give the visitors their share of counter-attacking chances. And the Dynamo men did.

Boniek Garcia drifted in from the right to help with possession, but that only pulled the Dynamo further out of shape when they did lose the ball.

And when they do lose the ball, New York is very, very good at this. Cahill and Henry know just where to move, and do so with a brutal efficiency. Peguy Luyindula knows just how to find them in space.

(MORE: Man of the Match, New York’s Tim Cahill)

Jermaine Taylor’s absence matters

Also title this one, “Eric Brunner: Just not that man’s day.”

We will spend plenty of time over the next two or three days talking about what Jamison Olave’s loss will mean to the Red Bulls. But the Dynamo was already missing a starting center back – and it sure helped shape this series.

Jermaine Taylor, Bobby Boswell’s central partner in the Houston defense for two years now, is injured. Eric Brunner was more than enough against Montreal four days ago, but he struggled mightily Sunday against a much better opponent.

Brunner was immediately up against it, down on the ground within 60 seconds after finding himself on the business end of one of those Tim Cahill aerial challenges.

Not much later, Brunner and left back Corey Ashe failed to communicate adequately on the Red Bulls’ first goal, as Cahill drifted right in between them to pound a header past goalkeeper Tally Hall. And it was Brunner who was spun around by Eric Alexander’s dribbling for the Red Bulls’ second goal. (No offense to Alexander, a strong role player along the right this year for New York, but no one has ever confused him with Arjen Robben for his dribbling prowess along the right side.)

In the second half, as Houston pressed for the equalizer, Brunner got a free header on one of Brad Davis’ corner kicks … only to see it zip just wide. Truly, this just wasn’t his day.

Which brings us back to Taylor, an underrated element of the Dynamo back line. If he’s in there, the Dynamo day may have started much differently. Either way, if the Dynamo cannot defend better than it did in the first half Sunday, there won’t be any need for a Brunner vs. Taylor debate.

(MORE: Match recap, as New York scores early but collapses late)

Thursday’s win over Montreal was a mirage

Credit Houston for a big second half rally, but this Dynamo version still has some issues.

And that big, 3-0 mid-week win over Montreal? I think we all suspected that it might have been a lot of “down Montreal” more than “Houston rising.”  Now it looks more like that was precisely the case.

Will Bruin still misses too many chances to be encroaching into a place where we might call him an elite striker. His first half miss Sunday, from in close, a shot that sailed high over the bar after he was put through by Boniek Garcia, was the perfect example. Bruin can score goals, of course, but can he score important ones, and consistently so? Missing the good chances in big matches is a killer.

Still, he was better than Giles Barnes, who didn’t really announce himself at all on Sunday.

The accuracy on Davis’ set piece service right now just isn’t what it needs to be. (The lack of thick grass at BBVA on Sunday may have affected his service; it’s hard to hit a good dead ball off that stuff.)

Hall found himself in a bad spot on the first Red Bulls goal, and then got beat too easily to the near post by Alexander.

All of this is why Houston needed a win in its final regular season just to make the playoffs.

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.