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Replacing Paul Scholes: Manchester United’s long-held weakness sending Red Devils to new depths

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If you were to pick one place where Sunderland won Tuesday’s League Cup match, the 56th minute insertion of Adam Johnson would stand out. Four minutes after Manchester United’s equalizer, the Red Devils appeared on the verge of controlling the game. Instead, Black Cats’ manager Gus Poyet brought Johnson on at Emanuele Giaccherini’s expense, sent right back Phil Bardsley sailing up the right flank (occupying Patrice Evra) and allowed his pace-filled winger to go at United midfielder Tom Cleverley.

In the 62nd minute, Johnson drew a penalty on Cleverley, creating the chance that would yield the game winning goal. Minutes later, Johnson again carried the ball past Cleverley to create a chance from distance. By the time the 75th minute arrived, David Moyes had called on Darren Fletcher, electing to shore up his team at Cleverley’s expense.

It was a match up you’d never expect Cleverley to win, exactly the reason the 24-year-old is a central midfielder as opposed to a wide player. In creating and exploiting it, Gus Poyet deserves praise for a tactic that does beyond reductive Xs and Os displays. At the same time, a glaring weakness in United’s squad that’s been harped on for years was seized upon by one of the Premier League’s bottom dwellers, providing indisputable evidence that United need to upgrade in the winter window.

For years, the brilliance of Alex Ferguson allowed the Red Devils to overcome their soft midfield, even if it that brilliance could do little to overcome Barcelona in two Champions League finals or prevent Manchester United from an embarrassing group stage elimination in the 2011-12 tournament. It also failed to realize Ferguson’s successor was unlikely to replicate his ability to work the problem, making his (and United’s) unwillingness to address the weakness even more curious.

This isn’t something that’s surfaced this year. Ever since the miles started to show on Paul Scholes (pictured, above), Manchester United has had a problem finding somebody to partner Michael Carrick in the middle. Darren Fletcher was that man for a while, but illness sidetracked his career. Anderson was purchased from Porto as a player to groom for the role, but we’re long past debating whether that move has been a bust. They tried to get Ander Herrera and Cesc Fabregas in the summer, and Wayne Rooney may have been asked to descend into the role had Ferguson stayed, but six months into the post-Fergie era, the only thing United have done to try to address their biggest hole was overpay for the now-injured Marouane Fellaini. It’s not good enough.

source: Getty Images
Limited but talented, Michael Carrick’s virtues are the subject of a constant debate around Manchester United’s midfield. The England international, however, is less of a problem than the players who have been chosen to play around him. (Photo: Getty Images)

Much of the debate around United’s midfield centers around Carrick, a player of whom there are drastically different opinions. Some think he’s one of the best deep-lying midfielders in England. Others think the devil on his shirt makes him one of the most overrated players in the league. The truth may lie in between, however, with Carrick being both excellent and very limited. Within 30 yards of goal, he is relatively useless, whereas in the middle of the field, his technique and vision (both passing and reading play coming at him) make him a valuable presence. In the defensive half, that ability to read the game makes him a plus defensively, even if his lacks a willingness to ‘get suck in’ that inspires fans.

Like a Andrea Pirlo, Carrick is a player that needs to be complemented, but whereas Juventus now have two ranging, physical players (Arturo Vidal, Paul Pogba), United don’t have one. They’ve tried Anderson, and it hasn’t worked. Fletcher’s been out of the picture, and with Fellaini, the Red Devils seem hopeful of having a player that can provide steel in the middle (even if he’s never covered the ground that Fletcher can). Within their current squad, it’s still unclear United have a successor for Scholes.

As Cleverley was being beaten by Johnson on Tuesday, that lack of a successor was clear. While Scholes is no more physically capable of keeping up with a player like Johnson, his intelligence meant the Sunderland winger may not have gotten the ball in the first place. Before his final three or four years at United, Scholes was great at reading those plays and, if not outright intercepting the ball, providing an obstacle when the man turned upfield. While that often resulted in some famously clumsy tackles, it also meant few players were allowed to run at Scholes the way Johnson took on Cleverley at Sunderland.

This has weakness for some time at United, but now that Ferguson’s gone, there’s no reason to avoid addressing it. This summer, United tried but came up short on Herrera and Fábregas. Now, although the options may be more limited in the winter window, it’s more important than ever the Red Devils don’t take this weakness for granted.

They’ve spent in attack, bringing in Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa. On the wing, they bought Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia not so long ago. At the back, they’ve invested in Chris Smalling and Phil Jones while adding David de Gea in goal. Contrary to popular complaints, Manchester United are willing to buy.

Now, they need to buy in the middle. Fellaini’s not enough. They need somebody who can complement  Carrick, and they need him in this window.

Tens of thousands welcomed Real Madrid home after Champions League final

Real Madrid bus (Photo credit: Real Madrid / Twitter: @realmadrid)
Photo credit: Real Madrid / Twitter: @realmadrid
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MADRID (AP) Tens of thousands of fans endured the rain to greet Real Madrid players as they returned home early Sunday from their triumph in the Champions League final.

[ MORE: Real top Atleti on penalty kicks — Ronaldo the hero again ]

Many waited all night after celebrating the team’s win over crosstown rival Atletico Madrid in a penalty shootout on Saturday in Milan.

The players arrived in Madrid at about 6 a.m. local time (0400 GMT) and traveled on an open bus to the club’s traditional celebration spot, the Plaza de Cibeles, where an estimated 30,000 supporters welcomed the team.

Players carried the Champions League trophy atop the bus, constantly showing it to the cheering fans. The word “Campeones” and “11” were displayed prominently on the bus, in reference to the club’s 11th European title.

[ MORE: Ronaldo — “Our team showed more experience” ]

Team captain Sergio Ramos, who scored Madrid’s goal in regulation time at the San Siro, took the walkway set up over the plaza’s fountain and draped the statue of the goddess Cybele with the club’s scarf and flag, then lifted the trophy high above the famous figure.

A huge video screen was set up at the plaza to allow fans to watch the final, and the party began right after Cristiano Ronaldo converted the final penalty kick in the shootout to give the club its second European title in three seasons. Light shows and music entertained the fans through the night.

Atletico Madrid supporters, who again were denied the opportunity to celebrate the title, had gathered at a different viewing spot to watch the final.

[ MORE: Bale — “We deserve it” ]

There were no reports of major incidents between fans of the rival clubs.

Real Madrid said “almost 80,000” fans watched Saturday’s final at the team’s Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, where four huge screens were placed at midfield. The title celebration at the stadium included confetti thrown into the air as “We are the champions” played through loudspeakers.

The team will meet with the mayor of Madrid later on Sunday and again will parade through city streets.

The title celebrations will culminate at night at the Bernabeu.

Marek Hamsik absolutely smashes goal in Slovakia’s upset of Germany (video)

TRNAVA, SLOVAKIA - MARCH 25:  Marek Hamsik of Slovakia runs with the ball during the international friendly match between Slovakia and Latvia held at Stadion Antona Malatinskeho on March 25, 2016 in Trnava, Slovakia.  (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images
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Marek Hamsik hit a ball with such momentous force that we’re not sure it rotated more than three full turns on its 20-yard flight into the goal.

The Slovakia star’s goal equalized a friendly with Germany at 1, and Repre went on to hammer the reigning World Cup champs by a 3-1 score.

[ USMNT-BOLIVIA: Recap3 things | Player ratings ]

I mean, really, what a hit. Bernd Leno had little hope of touching it.

Carrick praises Mourinho, reportedly will sign Manchester United extension

MONACO - MAY 27:  Michael Carrick attends the Red Bull Racing Energy Station at Monte Carlo on May 27, 2016 in Monaco, Monaco.  (Photo by Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images)
Photo by Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images
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Longtime Manchester United midfielder Michael Carrick spoke glowingly of new boss Jose Mourinho amidst rumors he’ll sign a one-year extension with the Old Trafford set.

Carrick, 34, joined United from Tottenham in 2006, and has won major trophy after major trophy with the club. He wants more, and he doesn’t care how.

[ MORE: United hires Mourinho | Things he must do ]

The 34-times capped English midfielder has 421 appearances for United, and could fit neatly into a Mourinho system.

From The Mirror:

“You have to be number one and winning trophies and if you can do that with a bit of style and a bit of flair then that is the perfect match but first and foremost it is about winning and getting back on top.

“There is going to be change without a doubt because he is coming in and he is his own man.

“He has got an unbelievable track record and everyone is looking for quick results and that’s how it is.”

We have to wonder how the United fans who booed Louis Van Gaal after every turn will react to these comments, although wins cure everything, right?

Kante, James among players happy to stay put with champions

MADRID, SPAIN - NOVEMBER 04: A dejected Simon Mignolet of LiverpSimon Mignolet of Liverpool (L) looks on as Karim Benzema of Real Madrid CF celebrates scoring the opening goal with team mates during the UEFA Champions League Group B match between Real Madrid CF and Liverpool FC at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on November 4, 2014 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
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There were many rumors than N'Golo Kante had a deal that would allow him to leave Leicester City, but the midfielder doesn’t sound like the leaving type.

According to L’Equipe, Kante isn’t looking to leave the Premier League champions, and is content to play in the UEFA Champions League with the Foxes next season.

[ UCL: Real Madrid wins | CR7 reacts | Bale, too ]

He’s been tipped to move to Real Madrid and Manchester City amongst other potential stops.

“For now, I am happy at Leicester,” he said. “I do not pay too much attention to everything that is said.”

That vibe is running through the headlines today, as UEFA Champions League winners Karim Benzema and James Rodriguez say they want to stay at Real Madrid, and Isco is also happy to come back to the Bernabeu to make a run at a first La Liga title since the 2011-12 season.