HULL, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 28: George Boyd of Hull City (L) congratulates team-mate Ahmed Elmohamady after scoring a goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Hull City and Fulham at KC stadium on December 28, 2013 in Hull, England

Quick six headlines from the PL weekend: Hull’s explosion, Anelka’s mistake, Man United’s climb

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1. Yes, that was hull city with six goals on saturday

Through the 48th minute of Saturday’s second half, Hull City was averaging a goal every 104 minutes this season, with only Crystal Palace, Sunderland, and Cardiff City proving worse at putting the ball in the opposition’s net. Then, with Ahmed Elmohamady’s 49th minute opener against visiting Fulham, the Tigers began a 35-minute barrage that would leave them 10th in the league in scoring, their 6-0 win over Fulham fueled by the type of explosion we rarely see from the Manchester Citys and Liverpools of the world, let alone Steve Bruce’s previously goal-starved team.

[MORE: Hull City 6-0 Fulham: Tigers run riot over defenseless Fulham (video)]

It’s the first time since 2004 Hull has struck for six in a game, though that outburst came in the third tier, when the to-be-promoted Tigers hosted Tranmere Rovers.  With less than three seasons’ experience in the top flight, Saturday’s was the highest scoring first division performance in Hull’s history, one that vaulted the Tigers into 10th in the Premier League.

For Fulham, it means they’re still in the relegation zone, sitting in 18th place. It means the  honeymoon period that saw the Cottager claim two wins in five under René Meulensteen is over, and for a team that’s allowed nine more goals than anybody else in the Premier League, it means a new, unexpected low. As bad as this season started on the Thames, nobody could have imagined this result.

2. Do we believe nicolas anelka?

The death of his agent derailed Nicolas Anelka’s first half-season at West Brom, with the former Arsenal, Manchester City, and Chelsea striker briefly leaving the team to grieve after his friend’s death in August. On Saturday, however, the French striker finally made an impact with the Baggies, scoring his first two goals for the West Midlands club as West Brom earned a 3-3 result at West Ham United.

[MORE: West Ham 3-3 West Brom: Plenty of excitement in Saturday’s first Premier League match (video)]

The headlines, however, weren’t about Anelka’s surprise contribution but how he celebrated it. Claiming to honor French comedian Dieudonne after his first goal, Anelka gave when appeared to be a reverse Nazi salute, raising his left hand to a down-pointing right arm to form a quenelle. Post-match on Twitter, Anelka denied he intended any anti-Semitism. The FA, however, has opened an investigation.

[MORE: Nicolas Anelka accused of ‘anti-Semitic’ gesture during goal celebration (video)]

In the face of criticism from government officials back home, Anelka asked people to challenge the in-the-moment interpretations of his intent.

“This quenelle was a dedication to Dieudonne,” Anelka tweeted. “[French ministers] are the ones who create controversy and confusion without knowing what the gesture really means. I ask people not to be duped by the media.”

On Saturday, images such as these were making the rounds on Twitter, showing other prominent French athletes replicating the controversial gesture:

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San Antonio Spurs Tony Parker (upper right) and Boris Diaw (lower right) are photographed with Dieudonne, as is judoka champion Teddy Riner (upper left). Liverpool’s Mamadou Sakho and Manchester City’s Samir Narsi have also been seen in similar photos making a quenelle with Dieudonne, who came up with the salute five years ago while running for elections on an anti-Zionist platform.

Given that context, it’s hard to place too much malicious intent behind Anelka’s gesture, though with Dieudonne’s right-wing political views, the West Brom striker couldn’t have been ignorant to the controversy this could cause. As former France international Marcel Desailly said on Canal+, “knowing the line exists, he should have avoided it. He knew all eyes were on him.”

Anelka decided to push forward without regard to that line. Malicious or not, The FA could have a problem.

3. loss highlights Tony Pulis’s impact at crystal palace

Crystal Palace’s three wins in five games before visiting Manchester City had already illustrated Tony Pulis’s impact, but it may have taken a stage like the Etihad Stadium’s to truly highlight what the Stoke City boss has done for the formerly bottom-dwelling club. As advertised, Pulis has brought a blunt simplicity to Palace’s approach, and as he reminded us when introduced, it’s an approach that has never seen one of his teams relegated.

After Saturday’s 1-0 loss to City, the Eagles are still within reach of the drop, but for the second straight round, they’re safe, sitting 16th after Sunday’s action. Perhaps more noteworthy, they held Manuel Pellegrini’s goal gluttons to one score, the first time since Dec. 7 the Citizens have been denied multiple goals.

[MORE: Manchester City 1-0 Crystal Palace: Dzeko’s strike downs plucky Palace, sends City top (video)]

Granted, City did control most of the match. They were without the injured Sergio Agüero while the likes of Yaya Touré, Álvaro Negredo, and Samir Nasri sat. Like everybody else managing the quick Boxing Day turnaround, Pellegrini’s team wasn’t the same as the one that put up a record goal-scoring pace through 18 rounds, though they still had Edin Dzeko. They still played David Silva, one of this year’s best players in the Premier League. And they still had the likes of Jesus Navas and the recently brilliant James Milner in the team. Saturday’s was still a dangerous City team.

Besides, Palace was handcuffed but the short rest, too, yet they still managed to get four shots on Joe Hart, forcing the City keeper into a Man of the Match performance. The had chances to get something from the league’s best team – a team that’s yet to drop a point this season at home.

[MORE: What we learned from Manchester City’s squeaker win over Crystal Palace]

Though Pulis’s formula didn’t come good in Manchester, you can still see where he’s had his impact. The way the club was playing under Ian Holloway, Palace would have gotten Fulham’d. Instead, the Eagles are now capable of staying with the best in the league – potential that pays off in points when they’re not visiting the Etihad.

4. LIVERPOOL’S TOUGH WEEK ENDS WITH LOSS AT CHELSEA

Liverpool came into the week on top of the league, but after visits to Manchester City and Chelsea, Brendan Rodgers’ team has fallen all the way to fifth – a cruel slide for a team that actually played pretty well over the last four days. But whereas most teams would content themselves with moral victories after one-goal losses at the Etihad and Stamford Bridge, the point-less week serves as a reality check for the Reds. For all the obvious progress they’ve made on the field, title contention may be a too much in the second year of the Rodgers era.

At least, we’re bound to hear that conclusion with Liverpool sitting six back after Sunday’s 2-1 loss, but there’s another way to look at it. Almost every team is going to lose at Manchester City this year (the Citizens are 10-0-0 at home). A one-goal loss at Stamford Bridge is another reality teams are going to have to face, just as the Citizens did earlier this season. Has anything happened to Liverpool this week that won’t also happened to other teams? Other title contenders? And if not, is there any reason to be down on the Reds?

[MORE: Chelsea 2-1 Liverpool: Blues earn important win with first-half comeback]

[REVIEW: Manchester City 2-1 Liverpool; Reds fail to finish as City climbs second (video)]

That’s the way I choose to look at it. Even though they sit fifth, I still see Liverpool as potential contender for the title. Though Luis Suárez’s lack of goals this week highlights better defenses’ ability to stop him (and Liverpool’s lack of an alternative), the Reds are still capable to ripping through other teams. Their approach leaves them less likely to settle for one point in a game they should get three.

It was a tough week for Liverpool but not necessarily a bad one. Though we’re not used to seeing this year’s team as low as fifth, their play on the field tells us they’re capable of more. An uncharacteristically close top five-or-six mean they may not sit higher come season’s end, yet this week showed Liverpool is capable of climbing higher, potentially pulling themselves back into the title race.

5. Welbeck, Manchester United continue their rise

The last time we speculated Manchester United’s transition phase was over, the team hit another patch that put David Moyes’ job status back in the headlines. Now, however, after Saturday’s 1-0 win at Norwich, Manchester United are only three points out of the top four. They won their Champions League group and have taken four-in-a-row in league, and while another manager many not have needed this huge regroup before climbing the table, Moyes now appears to have some things figured out.

[MORE: Norwich City 0-1 Manchester United: Welbeck hands United yet another win (video)]

One of those things may be Danny Welbeck, whose 57th minute goal at Carrow Road had Moyes singing the England international’s praises post-match. Coming on a halftime to replace Ryan Giggs, Welbeck provided the scoring punch the sidelined Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney could not. In that way, he may have been the only person who capable of taking all three points for United, but with his fourth goal in five games, he did. Welbeck is now up to seven all-competition goals for the season.

It would be too much to call Moyes’ team impressive, but just like this climb toward the top four, perhaps that’s to come. This month Moyes figured out how to use Welbeck. Previously, he rediscovered Wayne Rooney’s elite form. Maybe in January, Shinji Kagawa will shine, and by February, Moyes will have acquainted himself with all of United’s talents.

With the five teams ahead of them capable of picking points off each other, maybe there’s still a title run in this squad, provided we haven’t again misread the state of Moyes’ transition.

6. THE VINCENT TAN SOAP OPERA CONTINUES 

Alternate title: Malky Mackay finally got what he wanted

Do I know Malky Mackay wanted to get fired? No, but I can only judge a man on his actions, and if the former Cardiff City manager really wanted to keep his job, this is the most oblivious case of self-sabotage in Premier League history. If, however, he was trying to get Bluebirds’ owner Vincent Tan to fire him, he wrote the book on how to get paid to walk away. With his firing on Friday, Mackay finally got paid to walk away from a position he’d clearly come to despise.

[MORE: Malky Mackay has been sacked by Cardiff City]

At least, that’s what he’s hoping for. Some reports claim Tan intends to withhold the money Mackay’s owed on his contract, though those reports seem speculative. In waiting in the hope that Mackay would walk away, Tan appeared to acknowledge the costs of firing his under contract boss. On Friday, has accepted those costs, deciding it was better to let Mackay go than continuing the hope he would walk away.

Not that he didn’t have reason to walk away. Tan had fired his head of recruitment, has been reported to have given the manager tactical directions, and told Mackay to resign or be fired. Mackay chose the latter, effectively calling his boss’s bluff.

As we discussed last week, this was a relationship that had to end, particularly with Mackay having exasperated the problems. He’d come to air his complaints through the media, be it about wanting new recruits in January or speaking out against his owner’s behaviors. Many suspect last Monday’s leak of the ‘resign or be fired’ email was done by Mackay and his representatives.

At some point, if you don’t like the people who sign your paychecks, you should walk away. Instead, thanks to his astute use of the media, Mackay will be paid to do so.

The subtext of all this is a very English one. It’s the only place in the world where a manager is seen to be above his chairman’s predilections, fan and media sentiment giving every Malky Mackay the right to act like Brian Clough. There’s no indication that Mackay was ever as belligerent as the famed Nottingham Forest boss, but he also wasn’t nearly as successful. As Tan pointed out, Mackay and Moody got a lot of money to make Cardiff better over the summer, and the results have yet to come.

The simple truth for all of us unfortunate enough to have to work for others: We often have to deal with circumstances we don’t enjoy. Either that, or we have to walk away from our jobs without a penny. We don’t have jobs that allow us to undermine our bosses, let alone get supportive press coverage when we do. Most of the Malky Mackays of the world need their paychecks.

Though many want to depict Mackay was the one hard done by Tan’s antics, he exits more fortunate than most. He gets his money, and thanks to his astute use of the media, his next employer is unlikely to look harshly on his experience at Cardiff. Whoever succeeds him, however, is likely to find the work environment better than Mackay, a man who contributed to his own departure in Wales.

Premier League Preview: Sunderland vs. Manchester United

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  • United 6 points outside the top four
  • Sunderland winless in four
  • MUFC has one loss in 27 vs. SAFC (W20, D6, L1)

Manchester United’s uphill battle for a top-four finish continues on Saturday when the Red Devils travel to the Stadium of Light to face Sunderland (Watch live, 7:45 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra).

United won this fixture in September 3-0 behind goals from Memphis, Wayne Rooney, and Juan Mata.

[ WATCH LIVE: Stream every PL game via Live Extra ]

Sunderland sit 19th on the table four points from safety as the time has come for Sam Allardyce‘s side to start getting results. Without a win in their last four matches, the Black Cats must turn things around if they want to stay up in the Premier League. Jermain Defoe scored last time out in a draw at Liverpool, and he’ll once again be tasked with finding the back of the net if Sunderland are to win.

[ MORE: Prince-Wright’s Premier League Picks for Week 26 ]

For Manchester United, the pressure is still on Louis Van Gaal as rumors and reports circle linking Jose Mourinho to the job. Fifth on the table and six points behind Manchester City, a top-four finish is slipping away from United if they don’t rattle off a few wins. A late goal at Chelsea last weekend cost the Red Devils all three points, but they’ll look at this matchup against Sunderland as a good opportunity to get a positive result.

What they’re saying

Sunderland boss Sam Allardyce: “Providing chances for Jermain Defoe is critical for us. But our first major problem is that we haven’t kept a clean sheet in nine matches. We need to start putting a zero against us in games and if we start doing that we’ll win more matches. If we win more matches, we’ll get out of trouble.”

United manager Louis van Gaal: “We had lost four matches in a row in December and you see us now. You can only say that we are mentally very strong and that we can cope with the pressure. That is not enough as we have to improve our results and consistency to win a lot of matches in a row. We have to minimize the gap to our competitors.”

Prediction

Sunderland need all the points they can get to try and stay up, but United always seem to cause the Black Cats problems. Jermain Defoe is kept off the board as Louis van Gaal takes the win. Sunderland 0-2 Manchester United.

Costa breaks nose, will be fit to play for “Zorro team” vs. Newcastle

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 07:  Diego Costa of Chelsea reacts during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on February 7, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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Chelsea striker Diego Costa broke his nose in training after a clash of heads, but should be fit to play in Saturday’s match against Newcastle (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra).

Costa has six goals in his past seven Premier League games as Chelsea are unbeaten in their last 11 in all competitions.

[ MORE: Top 5 PL storylines ]

Manager Guus Hiddink spoke about the injury in his press conference on Friday, saying Costa collided with an Academy player in training. Hiddink said he believes Costa will be ready to play this weekend for his “Zorro team” as Costa joins Gary Cahill, Nemanja Matic, and Cesar Azpilicueta as Chelsea players to wear a mask this season.

It was not a tough duel but he put his nose on the back of the head of one of the youngsters from the Academy that we like to participate in our training games. He was very unlucky.

They are putting a mask on Diego as well, we are the team with a lot of masks, a Zorro team, and he will come back do some light training this afternoon as he must experience how he is dealing with the form and the fitting of the mask.

Costa scored a stoppage-time equalizer against Manchester United last weekend as Chelsea continue to get results under Guus Hiddink. The Blues are up to 13th on the table, just three points outside the top half.

[ RELATED: Frank Lampard urges Chelsea to sign John Terry ]

Chelsea will look to extend their unbeaten run to 12 matches on Saturday against a Newcastle side that is just one point above the drop and in need of a result.

Messi named La Liga Player of the Month for first time in career

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 06:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona celebrates after scoring his team's second goal during the Copa del Rey Round of 16 first leg match between FC Barcelona and RCD Espanyol at Camp Nou on January 6, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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Lionel Messi has won every individual award imaginable, but now he can add another trophy to his shelf.

For the first time in his career, Messi was named La Liga’s Player of the Month for January.

[ MORE: PL Power Rankings, Vol. VIII ]

It’s hard to believe, but somehow the Barcelona superstar had never won this honor before. Despite winning a record five Ballon D’or trophies as the best player in the world, this trophy had eluded Messi since its inception in 2013.

Messi scored six goals in six January matches as Barcelona sit atop the La Liga table, currently holding a three-point lead over Atletico Madrid.

Despite their dominance in La Liga, this is only the second time a Barcelona player has won this monthly award, as Neymar took home the honor in November of 2015.

USWNT-Mexico preview: Energized Yanks look to keep rolling toward Rio

FRISCO, TX - FEBRUARY 10:  Team USA poses for a photo before play against Costa Rica during 2016 CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying at Toyota Stadium on February 10, 2016 in Frisco, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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The United States women’s national team looks to keep rolling through CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying with a match with Mexico on Saturday.

Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, is again the scene after the Yanks battered Costa Rica 5-0 on Wednesday.

[ MUST WATCH: Christen Press’ dazzling first touch, spin, goal ]

A win over Mexico would move the USWNT into the all-important semifinal, where a win would gain them entry into this Summer’s Olympic Games.

Mexico staged a blowout of its own on Wednesday, cruising past Puerto Rico 6-0 thanks in large part to a hat trick from Maribel Dominguez.

[ VIDEO: Alex Morgan caps off a 12-second, six-pass goal ]

Mexico has only beaten the USWNT twice in history, and only the 2010 Gold Cup semifinal is considered official.

In recent history, the USWNT beat up Mexico 5-1 last year, and thrice in 2014 by a combined score of 15-0. Expect very little to change with an energized, impressive U.S. side on Saturday.

[ SATURDAY: Watch USWNT vs Mexico live online on NBC Sports Live Extra ]