Third straight loss sees Manchester United down 2-1 to Sunderland after leg one of League Cup semifinal

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In a match short on chances, two narratives were served tonight at the Stadium of Light. Sunderland’s 2-1 win over Manchester United in the first leg of the teams’ League Cup semifinal played out all the clichés about the first leg of a two-legged tie. It was cagey, guarded, and left neither team willing to risk their second leg chances in search of first leg success.

But the loss also illustrated all the negatives surrounding David Moyes’ plight with the Red Devils. Conservative and unwilling to risk players forward to create chances against a less-talented opponent, Moyes allowed the first leg to be decided by set pieces and penalty kicks. With his team receding into defense at the opening kickoff, Moyes allowed Sunderland to dictate as much of the match as United, part of the reason why a Ryan Giggs own goal and a Fabio Borini penalty conversion leave Guy Poyet’s side ahead after 90 minutes.

Against a team that would have trouble placing any of their starters in United’s Tuesday XI, the Red Devils entered the match’s final half hour even in possession and shots on goal. Those numbers would be irrelevant had United generated the better chances, yet the favorites had barely generated any chances at all. Nemanja Vidic’s second half goal off a corner kick meant the Red Devils failed to score from open play. Though they finished the match with advantages in shots on goal (4-3) and possession (56-44), United were every bit Sunderland’s equal, highlighting the form that’s seen United drop three games in a row.

A dull beginning saw United recede into their banks of four while Adnan Januzaj occupied the space beneath Danny Welbeck, a set up that saw them share the ball with Sunderland. With neither team able to unlock the other, the game’s first 44 minutes the produced only one shot on goal, with Welbeck’s test of Vito Mannone highlighting what was playing out as a predictable first leg.

Just short of halftime, however, Sunderland were given a chance after Jonny Evans was whistled for a foul on an aerial challenge just inside the United half. The resulting restart saw a far post cross headed back across the six-yard box for Phil Bardsley, with Ryan Giggs’ interception ending up in the back for David de Gea’s goal. Come halftime, the Black Cats had seen their only chance result in an own goal, sending the home side into the dressing rooms with a 1-0 lead.

That lead last only seven minutes into the second, with United using their own set piece magic to equalize in the 52nd. With a corner kick from the left, Tom Cleverley found Nemanja Vidic in the middle of the area at the edge of the six-yard box. The Serbian elevated to head his short down and past Mannone, pulling United even at 1-1.

source: Reuters
After Adam Johnson drew a second half penalty, Fabio Borini gave Sunderland the 2-1 lead they’ll take back to Old Trafford. (Photo: Reuters.)

Hints United would take over the match’s second half ended in the 62nd minute when Adam Johnson, recently brought on for Emanuele Giaccherini, drew a penalty in the right of the penalty area. Beating Cleverley one-on-one, the Sunderland winger raced passed the United midfielder from 30 yards out before going down in the box, a contentious call that gave Fabio Borini a chance to restore the Black Cats’ lead. Despite replays hinting Johnson did his best to draw the assistant referee’s attention, Sunderland restored their one-goal lead, with Borini finishing high into de Gea’s net to make it 2-1.

Over the match’s final half hour, United were the better side, though they were enjoying the type of control pursuing teams are granted when opponents begin focusing on defense. With that focus, Sunderland were able to keep Mannone from being significantly tested, and with Chris Smalling and Darren Fletcher the first names off Moyes’s bench (Smalling for the injured Jonny Evans), Moyes appeared content to take a one-goal deficit back to Old Trafford.

Perhaps then Manchester United will have Robin van Persie. Maybe Wayne Rooney will be back. Both players, injured, were absent from Moyes’s XI on Tuesday. Down only one-goal ahead of Jan. 22’s second leg, United has every reason to believe they’ll still be at Wembley on March 2. The last two times United reached the League Cup final, they lost the semifinal’s first leg.

That, however, should be little consolation for a team who, seven months after finishing 11 clear at the top of the Premier League, are playing no better than a team fighting for its top-tier survival. After a performance that justified every worry about Moyes’s fit at United, the Red Devils have lost three-in-a-row for the first time in 13 years.

Henry, Aguero discuss playing up top under Pep

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One great striker got another one to open up on an up-and-down year at Manchester City.

Thierry Henry — one of the greatest of all-time, it must be said — sat down with Sergio Aguero ahead of Thursday’s Manchester Derby at the Etihad Stadium, and asked the Argentine about Pep Guardiola, Gabriel Jesus, and more.

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

At times, it’s a fascinating discussion on playing lone striker. Even apart from the obligatory questions regarding Jesus’ arrival at City, Henry and Aguero speak their craft in a manner you don’t see too often.

That’s helped by the fact that Henry played for Guardiola at Barcelona, and can relate to the positional demands of Man City’s boss. Consider this exchange, from Sky Sports:

HENRY: When I was at Arsenal, I played up front and if I wanted to drift out to the left, I could. But when I got to Barca, I had to stay out wide and press. Sometimes doing that can be hard.

AGUERO: The thing I’ve found the hardest has been getting into my head the fact that I have to press the centre-back and the goalkeeper in matches. That’s what Pep asks me to do. It may not be a big deal, but in terms of processing it, the two of us speak a lot. He knows what I’m like.

I’ve been gradually learning and adapting to that style of pressing over the last few months. The first thing he taught me was how to press and how to do it well. Obviously there are times when I might drift out of position or I might press in an area where I’m not supposed to be, which might make it hard for the wingers or midfielders.

In the game itself, I may not realise because I’m so immersed and you can’t stop yourself. I’ve learnt a lot from him in terms of zones. He asks me to play as a No 9 and to stay in that position. I often drift out wide during matches and he looks at me and says, “If there’s a player out wide who wants to cross it in, who’s in there? Nobody.”

HENRY: I know all about that, believe you me.

I love this, because it shows how difficult it is for an elite striker to adapt his mentality. Both Henry and Aguero found world-celebrated success by playing in a certain fashion, and Guardiola understood that and still demanded a change. Earlier this season, the manager somewhat famously spoke of improving Aguero.

Aguero has been linked with Real Madrid given the tumult at City.

PHOTO: Liverpool unveils 125th anniversary kit for next season

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Liverpool rolled out its 125th anniversary kit, featuring a special crest to celebrate the occasion.

The Liver bird has 1892 on one side and 2017 on the other, with “125 YEARS” spelled out underneath the club’s emblem.

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

The red shirt with a gold crest has a white V-neck and white at the ends of the sleeves. The goalkeeper kit is green.

The jersey will be available on May 19, and was announced last month.

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Jara’s goal lifts Pachuca to CONCACAF Champions League crown

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Hirving Lozano’s dipping shot rebounded into the path of Franco Jara, who scored the goal that won Pachuca its fifth CONCACAF Championship early Thursday morning.

The Argentine’s goal was the only one of the win over UANL Tigres, and gave Pachuca its first continental title since 2009-10. USMNT veteran Omar Gonzalez played for the winners, while Jose Torres started for Tigres.

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

Major League Soccer teams were eliminated in the semifinals, with FC Dallas falling to Pachuca and Vancouver Whitecaps losing to Tigres.

Beginning with the 2017-18 tournament, qualified MLS and Liga MX teams will not enter the tournament until the Round of 16. The entire tournament will be held in the same calendar year.

USMNT: Brooks out with hip strain; World Cup qualifiers loom

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John Brooks is out of Hertha Berlin’s lineup “for the time being” after scans revealed a hip strain suffered in this weekend’s win over Wolfsburg.

That’s all Hertha has said, and that makes it hard to imagine whether American fans should be a little concerned or very concerned ahead of the USMNT’s World Cup qualifiers against Mexico, and Trinidad and Tobago in early June.

Brooks was unavailable for two weeks with an adductor strain in September, missing a month before returning to the starting lineup.

The U.S. center back pool isn’t teeming after Brooks and Geoff Cameron. Matt Besler, Tim Ream, Omar Gonzalez, and Walker Zimmerman were called up for the last World Cup qualifiers, and Gonzalez struggled but is a Bruce Arena favorite from their time in L.A.