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Raja Casablanca upset of Atlético Mineiro gives Moroccans surprise spot in World Club Cup final

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With a penalty converted in the 84th minute, Mouhssine Moutouali has completed Raja Casablanca’s improbable run into the World Club Cup finals, the host nation’s representative eliminating South American champions Atlético Mineiro 3-1 today in Marrakesh. Building on an early second half goal from Mouhssine Iajour, Moutouali broke a tie forged from a 66th minute Ronaldinho free kick, with Vianney Mabide’s 94th minute insurance finishing the Moroccans’ march into Saturday’s final.

There the competition’s hosts will face European champion Bayern Munich, who defeated Asian representatives Guangzhou Evergrande 3-0 on Tuesday in the tournament’s other semifinal. Atlético, meanwhile, is relegated into Saturday’s third place match to face Guangzhou , unable to claim a second straight title for CONMEBOL.

Raja’s success marks the first final appearance by a host since the competition resumed in 2005, with the berth likely to spark a small debate about the means by which the club qualified for the tournament. Whereas the competition’s six other participants won their confederation championships to make the World Club Cup, Raja qualified as a representative of the host nation, having won Morocco’s domestic league.  Since 2005, no host had moved past the semifinals.

Atlético Mineiro nearly drew first blood in the 22nd minute when a cross from the left of Raja’s penalty area looked set to connect with striker Jô at the edge of the six-yard box. The Atlético attacker never saw the ball, however, a sure goal denied when left back Adil Kerrouchy’s right heel clipped the ball out for a corner.

Just past the half-hour mark, Atlético winger Fernandinho pulled a shot just passed the left post, a miss the visitors were nearly made to rue three minutes later when a cross from Kerrouchy found  Moutouali in front of goal. The Raja attacker’s redirection found goalkeeper Victor, however, with an ensuring miss in the 40th minute adding to Moutouali’s close calls.

Just before half, another cross for Jô saw the Brazilian international go over the ball before goalkeeper Khalid Askri intervened, sending the match into halftime scoreless.

That scoreline would only last five minutes come the second half, with Raja taking a surprise lead on the South American champions with a 51st minute counterattack. With transition play building down the left flank, forward Mouhssine Iajour sprinted down the middle of the field to onto a ball put behind the defense, eventually finishing into the lower left hand corner from 19 yards out.

source: AP
Atlético Mineiro’s first match of the World Club Cup saw the South American champions into the third place game, Diego Tardelli (left) and Ronaldinho left on the wrong side of a 3-1 loss in Marrakesh.

The lead lasted 15 minutes before Ronaldinho, with a goal that felt like a foregone conclusion the moment the foul was called, finished into the upper right hand corner from a direct kick 19 yards out. From just outside the left post, the Mineiro star’s two-step run up sent the ball curving into the far side of goal, the inevitability of the score seen in Askri’s swiveling head as the ball arced into the goalkeeper’s net. After 15 minutes of dreaming of their unlikely final berth, the hosts had been pulled back to 1-1.

As the match’s final phase approached, Mineiro had resumed control of the game, though their persistence on the ball was always offset by the potential for the type of Raja counters that balanced the first half. When, in the 75th minute, a cross targeting Jô was redirected at Askri, Raja answered with a dash toward the Atlético area, a reminder that any momentum derived from Ronaldinho’s equalizer could still be used against Mineiro.

Six minutes before the end of regulation time, that threat paid off for Raja, who earned a penalty when  Mineiro center back Réver brought down Iajour in the Atlético area. Moutouali, making amends for his two first half misses, sent Victor diving left as he drilled the winning into the right of goal, giving the Moroccans their winning goal.

In the 94th minute, substitute Vianny Mabidé’s finish gave Raja unneeded insurance, with the final whistle moments later handing the Moroccans their 3-1 win.

With their third win of the competition, having eliminated Aukland City and Monterrey to reach the semifinals, Raja completes an improbable and what could be must-discussed run to the World Club Cup’s final. Whereas the tournament’s six other entrants had to win their confederation championships to qualify for the tournament, Raja participates by virtue of being the host country’s domestic champion.

If the improbable becomes the impossible, Raja could use that backdoor to become world champions, though to do so, they will have to defeat Bayen Munich on Saturday in Marrakesh.

Watch Live: Canada takes on T&T in CONCACAF Olympic qualifying

HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 11:  Deanne Rose #6 of Canada battles for the ball with Kayla De Souza #4 and Mariam El-Masri #15 of Guyana during the 2016 CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying at BBVA Compass Stadium on February 11, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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Canada and Trinidad & Tobago face off for the top spot in Group B in CONCACAF Women’s Olympic qualifying today in Houston.

[ WATCH LIVE: T&T vs. Canada ]

With wins in their opening matches, both sides are tied on three points and will look to take sole possession of first place on the Road to Rio.

Canada started off qualification with an easy 5-0 win over Guyana, while Trinidad & Tobago needed two late goals to beat Guatemala 2-1.

[ WATCH LIVE: T&T vs. Canada live online via NBC Sports Live Extra ]

After taking home the bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics, the Canadians will be favorites along with the United States to qualify for the Rio Games from CONCACAF.

Premier League roundup: Top Four tussles and a Liverpool light show

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 14: Francis Coquelin and Aaron Ramsey of Arsenal in action with Shinji Okazaki of Leicester City during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Leicester City at the Emirates Stadium.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images
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Sunday’s Premier League triple header on NBCSN delivered drama, goals and controversy by the time the dust settled on the day’s action.

[ MORE: Saturday’s action ]

All told, we saw 12 goals, a red card, two penalties and a tightened title race.

Let’s take a spin through those three matches.

Arsenal 2-1 Leicester CityRECAP

The Emirates Stadium crowd saw a little bit of everything. The Gunners went down 1-0 on a controversially drawn and lethally taken penalty from Jamie Vardy, then saw a glimmer of hope when Foxes defender Danny Simpson took two quick and silly yellow cards. Theo Walcott found the leveler and Danny Welbeck, out for 10 months, returned to score the winner in the fourth of four minutes of stoppage time. The Gunners are now two points back of Leicester and nine goals of differential behind No. 2 Tottenham.

Aston Villa 0-6 LiverpoolRECAP

Having two of your brightest attackers in the lineup can do a lot for an offense’s potency, and Philippe Coutinho found Daniel Sturridge to open the scoring very early at Villa Park. A deluge of goals followed, and Villa will be wondering if there’s any way out of the drop zone after James Milner, Divock Origi, Nathaniel Clyne, Emre Can and Kolo Toure also scored for the Reds to bury the home side’s goal differential with its table status.

Manchester City 1-2 Tottenham HotspurRECAP

If Vardy’s penalty was controversial, Mark Clattenberg’s decision to award one to Tottenham was cataclysmic. Raheem Sterling‘s leaping block of a cross was deemed to be a handball, and Harry Kane beat countrymate Joe Hart with a PK. Super sub Kelechi Iheanacho equalized for the Etihad set, but fellow late game entry Erik Lamela sprung Christian Eriksen for a tidy match winner in the 83rd minute.

Standings

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Leicester City 26 15 8 3 48 29 19 7-4-1 8-4-2 53
Tottenham Hotspur 26 14 9 3 47 20 27 7-4-2 7-5-1 51
Arsenal 26 15 6 5 41 23 18 8-3-2 7-3-3 51
Manchester City 26 14 5 7 48 28 20 9-1-4 5-4-3 47
Manchester United 26 11 8 7 33 24 9 6-4-2 5-4-5 41
Southampton 26 11 7 8 34 24 10 7-2-4 4-5-4 40
West Ham United 26 10 10 6 40 31 9 5-5-2 5-5-4 40
Liverpool 26 10 8 8 38 36 2 4-5-3 6-3-5 38
Watford 26 10 6 10 29 28 1 5-3-5 5-3-5 36
Stoke City 26 10 6 10 27 32 -5 5-2-5 5-4-5 36
Everton 26 8 11 7 46 35 11 4-4-6 4-7-1 35
Chelsea 26 8 9 9 38 36 2 5-5-4 3-4-5 33
Crystal Palace 26 9 5 12 27 32 -5 4-2-8 5-3-4 32
West Bromwich Albion 26 8 8 10 24 32 -8 4-4-5 4-4-5 32
Bournemouth 26 7 7 12 30 44 -14 3-4-6 4-3-6 28
Swansea City 26 6 9 11 24 34 -10 4-5-5 2-4-6 27
Norwich City 26 6 6 14 30 50 -20 4-4-5 2-2-9 24

Newcastle United 26 6 6 14 27 49 -22 4-5-4 2-1-10 24
Sunderland 26 6 5 15 32 50 -18 4-3-6 2-2-9 23
Aston Villa 26 3 7 16 20 46 -26 2-4-7 1-3-9 16

Spurs’ Kane wants to win everything: “We are buzzing”

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 14: Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur celebrates scoring his penalty with Danny Rose during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur at Etihad Stadium on February 14, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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FA Cup, Europa League, Premier League? Yes, please. Harry Kane wants them all.

Kane converted a penalty kick as Spurs bested Manchester City 2-1 on Sunday at the Etihad Stadium, moving to within two points of the Premier League’s top spot.

[ MORE: Match recap | Watch Eriksen’s winner ]

The big striker was euphoric after Christian Eriksen also scored to help Spurs pick up the win, and said the media can decide what it wants about their chances; He knows they can do it.

From the BBC:

“That is up to you lot if we are challengers, we know what we are capable of. We are still in three competitions and we are taking them all very seriously. We are confident we can beat anyone in the league, you saw that today and we came away victorious. We are buzzing.”

Spurs have captured 15-straight points in making their run to second. There’s plenty of time before March 5’s big North London Derby with Arsenal, but we’re looking forward to it.

Before then, Spurs have a pair with Fiorentina in the Europa League, an FA Cup date with Crystal Palace, and PL fixtures versus Swansea and West Ham.

Title race on!

Three things we learned from Tottenham’s big win vs. Man City

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Tottenham Hotspur beat Manchester City 2-1 at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday in a tight encounter.

[ MORE: Arsenal beat Leicester late on ]

A controversial penalty kick got Spurs rolling and despite a Man City fightback, Christian Eriksen pounced late on to grab the winner on his birthday.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Here’s what we learned as the title picture becomes even more jumbled after an epic day where the top four all met one another.

AWFUL PK CALL COSTS CITY

There’s a debatable handball decision and then there’s the kind of decision which went against Man City on Sunday. At the start of the second half Danny Rose curled in a pretty innocuous cross from the left flank and Raheem Sterling jumped in the air with his back to the ball and was right on the edge of the penalty area. The ball struck his ribs and may have grazed his elbow but he knew nothing about it. PEEEEEPP! What. No way. He hasn’t. He has.

Referee Mark Clattenburg pointed to the spot and Man City’s players looked on in disbelief as the penalty was awarded. Take a look at the video below. It was incredibly harsh and swung the game in Spurs’ favor and overall the decision created a major talking point about what is and what isn’t a handball anymore.

Referees show a severe lack of consistency when awarding penalties for handball. Is it ball to hand? Does the arm have to be in an unnatural position? On and on the debate goes, and from his angle it looked like Clattenburg guessed that it hit Sterling’s arm rather than seeing it actually strike the arm. It cost Man City dear as Manuel Pellegrini‘s side have lost two on the spin at home against title rivals Leicester City and now Spurs. City are six points off top spot now with 12 games to go and they aren’t out of this. However, when you look back at big decisions at the end of the season this one could be the difference between them winning the title or not. That PK call and a huge late save from Hugo Lloris who took the ball off Nicolas Otamendi’s head could be pivotal. Sure, City look better at the back with Vincent Kompany returning from injury but there’s no doubt they’re the outsiders for the title after a seventh defeat of the season.

SPURS’ INTENSITY INFECTIOUS

They hunt in packs. They hunt together. And on Sunday, Tottenham’s players hunted down loose balls with more ferocity than in any other game this season. Snapping into tackles, in the first half City couldn’t get into any rhythm and despite the poor PK call from Clattenburg they deserved to win.

[ MORE: Arsenal fans go wild in USA after Welbeck’s winner

Over the course of the game Tottenham looked more comfortable on the ball, they believed in each other and Spurs secured a fifth-straight PL win at a venue where they had lost on each of the last five encounters. Mauricio Pochettino‘s team are showing a maturity beyond their years. Harry Kane stepped up and was ice-cold with his penalty kick, Mousa Dembele patrolled the midfield with power and panache and Eriksen’s winner was a prime example of the high-tempo approach Pochettino loves to employ. In the 83rd minute Yaya Toure tried to run forward from midfield and lost the ball with four Spurs players swarming him. Erik Lamela then ran at the hart of City’s defense and slipped through a perfect pass to Eriksen. On his birthday the Dane was coolness personified as he took a sublime first touch and slotted past Joe Hart to send the away fans wild. Spurs have only won the title twice in their history and the last came back in 1961. Now, with an easy looking schedule they could transform from the dark horses to the favorites. Pochettino’s player are hungry, have the best defensive record in the PL and have proven themselves in the big games this season.

NORTH LONDON TITLE TUSSLE

Okay, this is actually happening. With Arsenal beating Leicester earlier on Sunday both north London teams are now just two points behind the Foxes. Spurs sit second and Arsenal third as only goal difference separates the two rivals who have 51 points. When they meet at White Hart Lane on March 5 it will be an incredible atmosphere and it could well be a huge game in deciding which half of north London the title goes to on May 15.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings | Schedule ] 

When you look back at the history of PL title races, there have been only a few instances where direct crosstown or local rivals have gone head-to-head for the title. Man City and Man United have had a few title tussles since 2011 but the fact that two bitter rivals are going at it for the title will only add to the incredible unpredictability. This season it is closer than ever at the top and Spurs and Arsenal now have plenty of momentum as they head into the two week PL break. Get ready for plenty of talk of a “title tussle in North London” over the next 10 days or so.  It’s legit.