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.

Arena should give Ream a look in Brooks’ absence

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With John Brooks out three months thanks to a horribly timed thigh injury, the United States yet again has to scramble to fill a void at the back. It’s not the first time an injury to Brooks has left the USMNT scrambling for cover at a thin position.

In the successful Gold Cup this past summer, with a largely domestic squad in place, Omar Gonzalez saw the bulk of the time at central defender, with Matt Besler his partner through the final two matches. However, with European-based players now in contention for spots with the early September international break, those two are unlikely to continue, at least not together.

[ MORE: Liverpool holds all the cards in Coutinho transfer ]

The most obvious choice to start September 1st against Costa Rica and likely shoo-in should he remain healthy for the next two weeks is Geoff Cameron. The 32-year-old has been back and forth between defense and midfield with club and country, and although he has publicly acknowledged his preference for a spot higher up the pitch, he was used in a back-three in Stoke City’s Premier League opener last weekend and is steadiest at the back.

But with a spot next to Cameron up for grabs in Brooks’ absence, a player who should get serious consideration is United States fill-in extraordinaire Tim Ream.

Ream has had to work hard to earn his place with the U.S., and while he’s seen time of late, he’s not been a first-choice pick. The 29-year-old has four caps so far in 2017, with two of those starts, including one in the impressive 1-1 draw against Mexico at the Azteca with the US still clawing its way back up the Hex standings. Even then, Ream would likely not have earned that spot had Arena not chosen to rotate nearly the entire squad between the pair of qualifiers in that window. His other start this year, the 1-1 draw at Panama, only came after Cameron pulled out of the squad the day of the game with a late injury. The last time Ream started back-to-back matches for the U.S. came back in 2015 when he was somewhat of a regular through the second half of the calendar year.

[ MORE: LA Galaxy send Van Damme back to Belgium ]

But now, with Brooks out, Ream looks like the perfect man to fill in again. The 29-year-old defender finished last season in top form as Fulham narrowly missed out on promotion, earning the official website’s Man of the Match award in a May 2nd draw with Brentford, and won it again in the club’s final match of the season.

Without missing a beat, Ream has picked up where he left off last campaign in the first few matches this month. Last weekend against Reading at the Madjeski Stadium, Ream’s center-back partner Tomas Kalas was sent off 36 seconds into the match, forcing Fulham to play a man down for 89 minutes. Ream and company solidified the back, conceding just once in the 61st minute en route to a 1-1 draw.

The club still likely requires reinforcements at the CB position – Ream was forced to partner with right-back Denis Odoi against Reading with Kalas suspended and Michael Madl injured – meaning Ream could see an influx of competition in the coming weeks. However, as it stands, the American is far and away the best (and most improved) central defender on a club favored for promotion.

Gonzalez performed well in the Gold Cup, and Matt Besler was serviceable, but with few other options in the heart of defense to take Brooks’ place, Bruce Arena could yet again look to Ream for an in-form replacement.

Mourinho looks to pile title pressure on Chelsea

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A week ago, just before their 2017/18 Premier League season began, Antonio Conte declared Chelsea to be an underdog for the title. It’s right not to put Chelsea to be a favorite,” Conte said.

Jose Mourinho disagrees.

Looking to deflect pressure away from his Manchester United squad, Mourinho declared Chelsea to not only be the favorites to win the Premier League this season and defend their title, but proclaimed it would be a massive disappointment if they didn’t.

[ MORE: Liverpool in an advantageous position regarding Coutinho ]

To Mourinho, the simple fact that Chelsea won last season means they should consider themselves the team to beat going forward. “For me the favorite is the champion,” Mourinho said in his pre-match press conference ahead of Manchester United’s game against Swansea City on Saturday. “Always. Because for some reason [they were] the champion. It doesn’t mean you are going to win it – I think it is the stamp that you have when you are champion, it is that the next season you are the favorite.”

Chelsea seems to have a depth issue at the moment, with injuries plaguing the squad. New signing Tiemoue Bakayoko leaves a big hole in midfield, especially with Nemanja Matic sold to the Red Devils. In addition, Gary Cahill and Pedro will miss time in the near future with suspensions, while superstar Eden Hazard remains out as he recovers from a broken ankle.

Despite all the missing players, Mourinho believes that Chelsea always comes through in the transfer window, and that will solve their problems. “If they have [depth problems], in a couple of weeks the problems are over. They have very good teams, very good players and I don’t see any reason for them not to be fighting for the title.”

Manchester United next meets Chelsea on November 5th in Premier League action at Stamford Bridge.

LA Galaxy offloads Jelle van Damme to native Belgium

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The 2017 season continues to punch LA Galaxy fans right in the gut.

With the club near the basement of the Western Conference standings, the LA Galaxy have officially announced the sale of defensive rock Jelle van Damme to Royal Antwerp of the Belgian top flight. The club confirmed a transfer fee of $235,000.

While van Damme is 33 years old, the sale of fan-favorite van Damme is still a blow both on and off the pitch. With the Galaxy in a period of transition, van Damme was a likeable personality who was known for leaving it all out on the field on gamedays.

The official news release of the transfer made it clear the club did not initiate the transfer with the intention to sell, but instead the player himself requested a return home as his career comes nearer to a close. Van Damme is from Lokeren, Belgium, a town between Antwerp and Ghent.

“Jelle came to us and requested to return home to Belgium to be closer to his children,” LA Galaxy General Manager Pete Vagenas told LAGalaxy.com. “We worked closely with Jelle and Royal Antwerp so that we could make this move possible for Jelle and his family. Our top priority remains the success of the LA Galaxy. We thank him for his time with our club and wish him the best going forward.”

Van Damme joined the Galaxy in early 2016 on a free transfer from Belgian giants Standard Liege. He made 55 total appearances across all competitions, including 46 in league play and another three in the playoffs. The defender’s contract was set to expire in December.

The team has taken a total nosedive in the last two months. Without a league win since June 21st against Colorado, the Galaxy have collected just a single point in league play, and they currently sit just a point off the bottom of the Western Conference standings.

Liverpool holds all the cards in Coutinho saga

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In a time of heightening player control in a rapidly expanding transfer market, one club sticks out as grasping a clear understanding of the shifting business landscape and how to retain its grip on its most valuable assets.

Following the sudden departure of superstar playmaker Neymar, Barcelona is trying desperately to pry Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool. On Friday, numerous reports in England claimed that Barcelona had gone in with a third bid, one even more ridiculous than the previous two. But they’re fighting a losing battle.

For a number of reasons, the Reds hold complete control over Philippe Coutinho’s transfer saga, a saga that will likely end with no transfer having been completed.

First and foremost, Coutinho just recently signed a contract extension in January that runs through 2022. As far as we know, there is no release clause in the deal, meaning at the most basic of levels, Liverpool maintains contractual control. However, as we’ve seen the past few years, that alone hasn’t stopped a number of players forcing their way out.

Yet this time, Liverpool finds itself in an advantageous position outside of just the contract. With the 2018 World Cup right around the corner, the Reds know that should they force Coutinho to stay, he is obligated to play at his best, knowing that any less would see him miss out on a spot in the packed Brazil roster, or at the least a starting position. Thus, Liverpool can be sure that even if their denial of his departure renders him despondent, he will likely remain the quality player he has proven to be.

The money Barcelona is offering – a whopping $151 million according to the most recent reports – is indeed a ludicrous amount for a player who, while quality, does not have nearly the marketability of his countrymate now residing in Paris. On talent alone, Coutinho likely isn’t worth that total, meaning Liverpool should sell. And yet, even with that cash in hand, in this hyper-inflated market where more is less, could it really do justice in replacing his impact in the club? This late in the transfer window, there’s no chance they could replace the 25-year-old, meaning they’d likely be torpedoing their entire season – Champions League included – to feel the warmth of $151 million burning a hole in their pocket until January, or even next summer.

Liverpool has built its entire roster around Coutinho. The arrival of Salah, the use of Firmino, the wide deployment of Mane, the makeup of the midfield. He’s good enough and young enough to be considered a “franchise player.” In two games without Coutinho this season, they’ve scored five goals, but that is a poor metric to describe the 180 wild minutes. The money alone isn’t worth the cost of his departure.

It’s quite possible that Barcelona’s stubbornness, brought on by the sudden loss of a beloved player and the meteoric rise of their rivals to all-time greatness, could see the Catalans come back with an even more preposterous bid. It’s true every player has a value, and at some point, should Barcelona’s blind rage see them flail wildly into the transfer window, the Reds should sell, and will. But with Fenway Sports Group not in dire need of cash and in an advantageous position, in all likelihood they won’t. Barcelona can throw all the Neymar money at Liverpool their heart desires, but nothing will force the Reds to budge.