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Quick six headlines from the PL’s New Year’s Day: Man United’s woes; Solskjær overshadows Arsenal; City, Chelsea impress

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1. Spurs continue Manchester United’s up-and-down season

From our Sunday Quick Six, on David Moyes pushing United to within three points of the top four:

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 … Moyes now appears to have some things figured out.

Three days later, everything we knew is wrong, with today’s 2-1 loss to visiting Tottenham leaving United five points back of fourth place Liverpool. Perhaps more importantly, the Red Devils let a decent but highly flawed Spurs team take three points from Old Trafford, handing United their fourth home loss of the season.

[MORE: Manchester United 1-2 Tottenham Hotspur: Eriksen inspires more Old Trafford blues]

The way it happened should rekindle misgivings about Moyes’ fit in Stretford. An inherently conservative tactician, Moyes instilled an approach that saw his team control possession (61-39) without generating enough chances. Before a late match barrage gave them a 6-3 edge in shots on target, the Red Devils had given up more chances than they’d generated, allowing a 34th minute header from Emmanuel Adebayor and Christian Eriksen’s 66th minute winner to take full points for Spurs.

No doubt, Spurs deserve credit for Wednesday’s result, with Tim Sherwood bringing his team within two points of a Champions League spot. A season that looked destined to disappoint under André Villas-Boas has been revitalized by his replacement. Like Pulis with Crystal Palace, Sherwood has seen early success with a ‘back to basics’ approach, one that’s rekindled the team’s preseason hopes.

Still, the headline to take out of Wednesday’s result is the two steps forward, two steps back quagmire that is United’s season. Is this team making any progress under Moyes? On Saturday, the answer seemed yes, but in hindsight, perhaps we were buying into the final results while overlooking the less convincing details..

Today, the answer is no, part of the reason the defending champions are 11 points off the lead at the 20-game mark.

2. Arsenal break through, Solskjær steals the news

On a day where Cardiff City needed that extra idea that could steal three points at the Emirates, the man set to provide that leadership going forward made a surprise cameo in the stands, with Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s appearance alongside Bluebirds owner Vincent Tan dispelling the notion he was no longer a candidate for Malky Mackay’s old job. What the soon-to-be boss saw was a heartfelt but mostly impotent effort, with late goals by Nicklas Bendtner and Theo Walcott delivering a 2-0 win to Arsenal.

[MORE: Arsenal 2-0 Cardiff City: Dominant Gunners break through late (video)]

Everywhere but the scoresheet, it was a one-sided affair. Arsenal kept 68 percent of the ball and outshot their guests 28-8, but stalwart defending helped limit the Gunners to six shots on target. For 88 minutes, that effort looked good enough to give Cardiff an unlikely point. Ultimately, however, Arsenal left with a deserved result.

[MORE: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer seen with Vincent Tan at the Emirates Stadium, appointment imminent]

With it, Arsène Wenger’s side stay top of the league, and without Olivier Giroud, Mesut Özil and Aaron Ramsey, the result serves as a testament to Arsenal’s depth as well as their consistency. Still, the big news at the Emirates didn’t transpire on the pitch but off, with Solskjær’s surprise appearance quelling the notion Cardiff had lost out on their prime candidate for Mackay’s job.

source: Getty Images3. HIGH-FLYING CITY RESURFACES IN WALES

On Sunday we tried to hype up the job Tony Pulis did in Crystal Palace’s near-upset at the Etihad Stadium. The most remarkable part: His Eagles held a Manchester City side on pace to set a league record for goals to only one score, something no other team had done in five matches. Granted, Manuel Pellegrini had made wholesale changes to compensate for the quick Boxing Day turnaround, but against a team with the resources of Manchester City, Crystal Palace still pulled off a minor feat.

Swansea City, however, had to face Álvaro Negredo, Yaya Touré and Samir Nasri. Their only reprieves were the absences of the injured Sergio Agüero and the rested David Silva, small consolations when the Swans found themselves down 3-1 by the 66th minute. Scoring his first of two just before halftime, Wilfried Bony gave Swansea temporary hope, but an early goal by Fernandinho followed by second half scores from Touré and Aleksandar Kolarov sent the hosts to a 3-2 loss.

[MORE: Swansea 2-3 Manchester City: Goals galore keeps City rolling]

Having given up two goals, City will hear more criticism of their defense, even though the team has allowed fewer goals than Tottenham, Manchester United, or Newcastle. And after winning another game on the road, Pellegrini’s side has dispelled the notion they morph into a different team away from the Etihad.

The one thing that’s indisputable: City can score goals. With 57 through 20 rounds, the Citizens are on pace to finish the season with 108 goals, a mark that would edge their names into the Premier League record books.

4. Chelsea performance provides more perspective on Southampton

Mauricio Pochettino is a very impressive man, part of the reason why everybody thought there may be something more to Southampton’s early season success than merely a hot team, a small sample size, and a set of early results transcending their more modest underlying factors. With our David Moyes’ narratives also proving unreliable, you’d think we’d learn some lessons about drawing early conclusions. Check back this time next year to see if any of us have softened our tones.

In the interim, Chelsea’s convincing 3-0 win at St. Mary’s is another reminder of the state of affairs at Southampton, where a decent team that’s made some smart moves since rejoining the Premier League has established itself as safely mid-table side. They’re not as good as their early season top-four form implied, nor are they as bad as a three-goal loss at home to an inconsistent (if talent) team hints. Sitting ninth on the Premier League, Pochettino’s team is right where it should be: behind the European aspirants; ahead of the teams with more obvious flaws.

[MORE: Southampton 0-3 Chelsea: Blues cruise to victory after classy display]

You could say the same about Chelsea, who are only two points off the lead after their fourth win in five. At the beginning of the campaign, most saw José Mouirnho’s team as Manchester City’s one true threat, and although Arsenal is emerging as a surprise contender for this year’s crown, Chelsea is only one point off City as we enter the season’s second half.

After their three-goal win at Southampton, however, it’s worth considering if they’re ready for more, yet this may also be a place where we can learn refraining from undo conclusions. One on hand, Chelsea just posted one of their most convincing performances of the year, with a strong showing from Fernando Torres providing another hint the Blues can still salvage something from their overpriced Spaniard. On the other hand, it wasn’t so long ago Chelsea was losing at places like Basel and Stoke and reverting into Mourinho’s favorite parry-and-pop policy to get a result at the Emirates.

So maybe we should just hold off. Manchester United visits Stamford Bridge in two-and-a-half weeks. Let’s see how the Blues perform against a good team when they’ll be expected to take full points. It’s a game they should win. Let’s give them a chance to impress us.

5. Cottagers rebound, climb out of drop

Fulham were playing one of the worst teams in the Premier League. They were at home, had their best attacker (Dimitar Berbatov) back, and saw their opponents lose a man just before half time. Come May, when we look back on the Premier League season, this may be the easiest game on the Cottager schedule, and in that sense, Wednesday’s 2-1 win over West Ham United was little more than holding serve.

[MORE: Fulham 2-1 West Ham: Kevin Nolan red card allows Fulham to ease by]

But given what happened this weekend, holding serve is enough. It was progress, even. Coming off a 6-0 loss at the KC Stadium, Fulham needed to prove the Hull result didn’t portend a collapse. They needed to prove it to themselves, to their fans, and perhaps to Shahid Khan, whose team just hired Alan Curbishley as technical director. If René Meulensteen couldn’t rebound from Saturday’s debacle, a successor was already on the payroll.

Instead, Fulham have climbed of the drop, passing Crystal Palace and Cardiff City to sit 16th. While it’s still difficult to see the Whites as a team that’s going to transcend a relegation battle, Cottagers fans don’t have to see last weekend’s drubbing as more than one bad result.

source: AP6. Liverpool, Everton swap leaves Reds in top four

Jan. 28’s Merseyside Derby at Anfield may turn out to be club’s most important game of the season, and not merely because of the rivalry between Liverpool and Everton. Sitting fourth and fifth in the Premier League, the blue and red halves of Liverpool may end up fighting it out for England’s last Champions League spot, and while the four-plus months after their late January meeting will provide a series of challenges that could undermine their final derby’s result, the 28th will be the final time either side can take points off the other. Whoever’s behind after that game will be at the other’s mercy.

After Wednesday’s results, Liverpool’s back on top, vaulting over the Toffees by virtue of their 2-0 win over Hull. Though the scoreline looks superficially mundane, Reds’ manager Brendan Rodgers called it his team’s best win of the season, Daniel Agger and Luis Suárez getting on the scoresheet as the Reds held Steve Bruce’s team without a shot on target. Coming off back-to-back loses to City and Chelsea, this was exactly the type of response Rodgers needed to see.

[MORE: Liverpool 2-0 Hull City: Agger and Suarez tame the Tigers]

Everton, on the other hand, dropped points for the second time in three games, a late penalty converted by Leighton Baines at Stoke City the only thing keeping Roberto Martínez’s team from their third loss of the season. Eventually cancelling out Oussama Assaidi’s early second half opener, Everton gave an effort Martínez lauded post-match, even if the 1-1 final also left the Toffees’ boss regretting missed opportunities.

[MORE: Stoke City 1-1 Everton: Late Baines PK rescues point for Toffees]

Half-way to the finish line, Everton can start shedding their upstarts’ mystique and begin thinking about European soccer. To do so, though, they need to avoid the type of pitfalls that held them back early in the campaign – pitfalls that led to the series of draws that leave them fifth after 20 rounds. Wednesday gave doubters another reason to think Everton will come up short.

Liverpool, on the other hand, showed they’re ready for a top four push, with Jan. 28’s derby at Anfield potentially key in their quest to return to Champions League.

FIFA candidate Prince Ali claims voting pledge from Liberia

Jordan's Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, flanked by school-age soccer players in uniforms, speaks before about 300 guests during an event at a Roman amphitheater in Amman, Jordan, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015. The prince is running for FIFA president, saying Wednesday he will fight "deep-seated corruption and political deal-making" and make soccer's scandal-scarred governing body more transparent. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)
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AMMAN, Jordan (AP) FIFA presidential candidate Prince Ali of Jordan says the Liberia soccer federation has pledged its vote to him.

Liberia follows Egypt as the second African voter claimed by Prince Ali since the Confederation of African Football’s leadership endorsed Asian confederation president Sheikh Salman of Bahrain on Friday.

The CAF executive committee urged the 54 African voters among FIFA’s 209-strong membership to back the sheikh in the Feb. 26 election.

Prince Ali’s campaign team on Saturday published a three-page letter of endorsement signed by Liberia federation president Musa Bility.

Bility writes that Prince Ali “represents real change” while other candidates are “not even prepared to criticize” the FIFA system.

Bility was himself an applicant in the presidential contest, then failed an integrity test judged by FIFA’s election monitoring committee.

LVG says Mourinho speculation is false, calls the whole thing “nonsense”

Chelsea's manager Jose Mourinho, center left, makes his way from the opposition dugout after greeting Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal, centre right, during their English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford Stadium, Manchester, England, Sunday Oct. 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
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Louis Van Gaal is sick and tired of the media speculating about his employment (or potential lack thereof), as well as reports linking the presently unemployed Jose Mourinho to his job, so what we’re going to do now is speculate on those reports a bit more.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

But first, we’ll give Van Gaal the chance to tell his side of the story. Who better to explain what’s going on at Manchester United than the manager of Man United, right? OK, Louis, take it away, mate — quotes from the Guardian:

“The last two months have been very difficult for my wife, my kids, my grandchildren and my friends to cope with. For me too, but I can cope. In the Netherlands they know I am too arrogant to doubt myself, but I also know that such a nonsense is being created about me. I do not believe that there is already a relationship between José Mourinho and Manchester United.”

“It is logical when you have lost four matches in a row, people are bound to be doubting. … I criticize the media for inventing stories. I never hired security. Never ever. And I am walking on the streets without security and all the people I meet are very positive.”

OK, now that that’s out of the way, Jose Mourinho is definitely talking to Manchester United, or someone is doing so on his behalf. There’s arguably never been a more sitting-duck manager in world football than Van Gaal is right now — not only have the results been extremely “meh” for nearly two seasons now, but he’s also got less than 18 months left on his contract, which means it would cost the club considerably less to make him go away than, say, David Moyes, who still had more than five years(!!!) left on his deal when he was fired in April of his first season.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL preview — Leicester hammer Man City, Spurs go 2nd ]

Also, they were totally in for Pep Guardiola, too, and since they didn’t get him, they’ll have to respond thusly, and since Carlo Ancelotti has already been named Guardiola’s successor at Bayern Munich, Mourinho is the last “big name” out there right now. Unless, of course, they wanted to tap up Manuel Pellegrini, who’s on his way out to make room for Guardiola. Could be fun. But not as fun as Jose back in the Premier League, at Man United, in the same city with Pep. Remember the last time those two were employed on opposite sides of a heated rivalry?

As spectacular as this year’s PL season has been — and it’s bordering on the best of all time, still with 13 weeks to go — think about what that means for next season. It’s going to have be even more bonkers, so as not to seem boring by comparison. Louis van Gaal seems like a nice enough guy, but his team’s football isn’t that exciting on the field, and he offers little more off it. Mourinho isn’t the hero we deserve, but he’s certainly the one we need.

Another one: Lavezzi the latest star set for the riches of China

Paris Saint Germain's Ezequiel Lavezzi form Argentina, celebrates the opening goal during a French league one soccer match between Paris-Saint-Germain and Rennes at Parc des Princes stadium in Paris, Wednesday, May 7, 2014. Paris Saint Germain clinhed its second straight French league title on Wednesday after rival Monaco drew 1-1 against French Cup holder Guingamp. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
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The list just keeps growing; Ezequiel Lavezzi, he of Paris Saint-Germain and Argentine national team fame, is the latest star leaving Europe behind with the Chinese Super League his next stop, according to multiple reports Saturday night.

[ MORE: The latest transfer news and gossip ]

Linked with a move to Premier League side Chelsea during the recently completed January transfer window, a move away from PSG never materialized for the 30-year-old. Not on the European continent, at least.

Now, the former Napoli, San Lorenzo and Estudiantes (Argentina) attacker is set for Shanghai Shenhua, where he’ll reportedly take home something in the $11-to-15-million-per-year ballpark. When you can somehow get a raise from your current deal with a Qatar Sports Investments-owned club… well, I guess you’d be dumb not to do it.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Leicester hammer Man City, Spurs go 2nd ]

It was already pretty well known Lavezzi would be leaving the French capital in 2016, but when his tenure survived through much of Europe’s winter window, it seemed he would hang around until the expiration of his current contract before moving elsewhere on a free transfer.

Then came the monstrous windfall of cash into and subsequent spending by CSL clubs over the last two weeks; Lavezzi joins the likes of Ramires, Gervinho, Jackson Martinez, Alex Teixeira, Demba Ba and Fredy Guarin, among others, to move to China for massive annual salaries. At Shenhua, Lavezzi will play alongside Ba and Guarin, as well as former Everton and New York Red Bulls man Tim Cahill, who made the move to China last year.

The CSL’s transfer window doesn’t close until Feb. 26, so the spending spree may well go on a little while long.

La Liga & Serie A roundup: Atleti bounce back to keep pressure on Barca

Atletico's Jose Maria Gimenez, right, celebrates after scoring a goal during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Atletico de Madrid and Eibar at the Vicente Calderon stadium in Madrid, Spain, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)
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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights:

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Atletico Madrid 3-1 Eibar

The race for the La Liga title isn’t over quite yet — though Barcelona are overwhelmingly favorites at the moment — and Atletico Madrid will have to keep winning, with just about no room for error, to keep it that way. On Saturday, they did just that by defending their home turf, to the tune of a 3-1 victory over Eibar.

Keko put the visitors ahead in the 46th minute, but Jose Gimenez quickly opened the scoring for Atleti and equalized on 56 minutes. Saul Niguez made it 2-1 to Atleti seven minutes later, and Fernando Torres’ 100th career goal (below video) gave Los Rojiblancos a bit of insurance in the first minute of second-half stoppage time. With the victory, Atleti are level on 51 points with Barca, but the Catalan giants have two games in hand on Madrid’s “other” team, the first of which they’ll play on Sunday.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Rayo Vallecano 2-0 Las Palmas
Athletic Bilbao 0-0 Villarreal
Sporting Gijon 1-1 Deportivo La Coruña

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Levante vs. Barcelona (6 a.m. ET)
Real Betis vs. Valencia (10 a.m. ET)
Celta Vigo vs. Sevilla (12:15 p.m. ET)
Granada vs. Real Madrid (2:30 p.m. ET)


Bologna 1-1 Fiorentina

Fiorentina have left the door wide open for Inter Milan to re-enter the top three — and UEFA Champions League-qualifying — places with a 1-1 draw away to Bologna. The Viola finished the game with 10 men after Matias Fernandez was sent off for two yellow cards 10 minutes apart either side of halftime.

Their opening goal, which gave them the lead in the 59th minute, was beautifully worked and wonderfully taken by Federico Bernardeschi (below video). It was quickly canceled out, though, as Emanuele Giaccherini equalized four minutes later to earn a point and strengthen Bologna’s hold on 10th place in the league table.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Genoa 0-0 Lazio

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Hellas Verona vs. Inter Milan (6:30 a.m. ET)
Napoli vs. Carpi (9 a.m. ET)
Torino vs. Chievo (9 a.m. ET)
Frosinone vs. Juventus (9 a.m. ET)
Sassuolo vs. Palermo (9 a.m. ET)
AC Milan vs. Udinese (9 a.m. ET)
Atalanta vs. Empoli (12 p.m. ET)
Roma vs. Sampdoria (2:45 p.m. ET)