Juan Mata’s debut provides hope, leaves questions unanswered for Manchester United

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Had Manchester United kept their $61 million and left Juan Mata on Chelsea’s bench, today’s match against Cardiff may have played out the same way. At least, 2-0 sounds about right. You had the Premier League’s seventh placed team hosting its bottom dwellers, with one of the league’s best goal scorers returning to the home team’s lineup. A two-goal victory is par for the course in these situations.

Mata still made an impression, though. As a focal point above midfield, he provided a level of composure we’re not used to seeing from a Red Devils playmaker. We’re used to the energy of Wayne Rooney, who has excelled this season in that role. Lately, we’re used to the potential of Adnan Januzaj – talent that hints he mat yet be better as a wide-to-in player. With Mata, however, the Red Devils have a number 10 with the patience to let a play develop, something that should mesh well with Rooney’s bombast and Robin Van Persie’s movement.

That patience was evident mid-way through the first half, when the Spanish international pulled up along the right flank and let his runners fly into the box. Moments later, he found Ashley Young attacking the far post for a should-have-been goal.

To a lesser extent, that patience was also evident on his team’s first goal, with Mata electing to chip a ball wide left rather than force something through on the right. Patrice Evra and Ashley Young eventually created the goal Van Persie would score, with Mata having flooded the box to help overwhelm United’s opposition.

Expect to hear the phrase “foot on the ball” a lot over the next few days, because that’s exactly the impression Mata gave. With his acquisition, United finally have a guy who can control plays as well as make them – somebody who can take advantage of the movement he’ll get from his two star forwards.

We knew this about Mata when he arrived, but after half a season languishing at Chelsea, it was nice be reminded. It was refreshing to have somebody so important to the last two years of Premier League soccer back on the field. He didn’t get shipped back to Spain. He didn’t stay packed away in the Chelsea dressing room. The same guy who posted 30 assists over the last two league seasons has been saved – by Manchester United, no less.

Red Devils’ supporters have to be fired up. This is the high point of their season. After five months of middling results and fight amongst themselves about whether David Moyes is okay, bad, or horrible, there’s now another focus. Maybe there’ll be no title race this year, but the team’s Champions League hopes are still alive. And promising to play a more creative brand of soccer than has been offered since May, United may yet again be fun to watch. It wasn’t quite there on Tuesday, but the promise was.

source: AP
Mata’s 52 passes led Manchester United on Tuesday, his four “key passes” (Opta) tying for the team lead in the Red Devils’ 2-0 victory over Cardiff. (Source: AP.)

That promise is dependent on Mata playing well with both Van Persie and Rooney, something we didn’t get a chance to see against Cardiff. Van Persie started, Rooney relieved him, leaving Mata without an opportunity to provide for both scorers at once. That big reveal still awaits, leaving Manchester United with some important unanswered questions.

The way the Red Devils set up today, it was still unclear how they’ll deploy Mata with Van Persie and Rooney. On Tuesday, they played with two forwards – Mata playing behind Van Persie. With a setup not dissimilar to what United’s used all season, Moyes provided a small hint he may not change the formation for Mata’s arrival. After all, he hasn’t changed his approach much since moving from Liverpool to Stretford.

It’s a small hint, one that we shouldn’t read much into, but as NBC Sports analyst Kyle Martino said before the game, there’s a chance Mata ends up wide, playing the position he excelled in before arriving in the Premier League. If that happens — if Moyes does try to make Mata bend to him, rather than adapting to his talent — questions about United’s new manager will grow.

That’s not to say the set up can’t work. Right now, it’s one of a number of ways to get United’s three stars in the same lineup, but until that happens, Mata’s promise will be balanced against unanswered questions about how his new team will ultimately use him.

UEFA Champions League semifinal predictions

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With the semifinals of the UEFA Champions League to kick off over the next few days, let’s take a look at both games and predict which teams will make it to the final in Kiev on May 26.

[ MORE: Champions League scores

Liverpool or Roma? Real Madrid or Bayern Munich?

Here’s the lowdown as two eagerly anticipated games take center stage across Europe.


Liverpool vs. AS Roma
First leg: Apr. 24, 2:45 p.m. ET at Anfield
Second leg: May 2, 2:45 p.m. ET at Stadio Olimpico

This should be one heck of a tie with defending optional for both teams but both have very different ways of playing. Jurgen Klopp will unleash the fluid trio of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino on an often brittle Roma defense but the Italian giants have a giant in their own up top in the shape of Edin Dzeko. How Virgil Van Dijk and Liverpool’s defense deal with the threat of Dzeko will likely decide the outcome of this game. Liverpool will look to feed off the famous Anfield atmosphere to wrack up a big first leg lead before they head to Roma for Leg 2, and I fancy Salah to blow his old team away in the first leg. Liverpool to advance 4-2 on aggregate.

Bayern Munich vs. Real Madrid
First leg: Apr. 25, 2:45 p.m. ET at Allianz Arena
Second leg: May 1, 2:45 p.m. ET at Santiago Bernabeu

A proper heavyweight clash as Bayern and Real do battle knowing that whoever wins will be the favorites in the final. Cristiano Ronaldo is in the form of his life (again) after a slow start to this season and Zinedine Zidane’s side made hard work of it against Juventus in the last round but are on course for a third-straight UCL trophy. As for Bayern, they have been in imperious form and you feel like Robert Lewandowski can get the better of Real’s center backs. Expect this to be a tight game with extremely high quality from both teams. Real being at home in the second leg is a big advantage. Real Madrid to advance 3-2 on aggregate. 

Cologne’s Hector extends contract despite likely relegation

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COLOGNE, Germany (AP) Germany defender Jonas Hector has shunned reported interest from Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund by extending his contract with Cologne – despite the club’s almost certain relegation from the Bundesliga.

Cologne, eight points from safety with three games remaining, says its 27-year-old captain has signed a two-year extension to 2023 instead of using a release clause in his contract.

Hector, who has been at the club since 2010, says, “It wouldn’t have been a problem to switch to another club after this season but it didn’t feel right for me. I belong to Cologne and want to tackle the new season with the team and the fans behind us.”

Cologne sporting director Armin Veh says Hector’s decision is, “a great signal for the team, the club and our fans.”

Klopp talks politics: “Brexit makes no sense”

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Jurgen Klopp isn’t a fan of Brexit and he doesn’t care who knows it.

Liverpool’s German manager has spoken in the past about his disdain towards the vote by British citizens to leave the European Union, with Brexit officially planned for March 2019.

Klopp sat down with the Guardian to chat about a whole host of topics but it was his political views which will get the headlines ahead of Liverpool’s huge UEFA Champions League semifinal first leg against AS Roma at Anfield on Tuesday.

The man who has Liverpool on the cusp of reaching a major European final and comfortably in the top four of the Premier League also admitted that he has a “helping syndrome” and wants to help out everyone and he cares about them greatly.

It is worth letting the words speak for themselves when it comes to Klopp’s comments on Brexit as it is clearly something else he cares a lot about.

Take it away, Jurgen…

“When Mr [David] Cameron had the idea [of a referendum] you thought: ‘This is not something people should decide in a moment.’ We are all influenced by the way only some of the argument is given, and once the decision is taken nobody gives you a real opportunity to change it again. The choice was either you stay in Europe, which is not perfect, or you go out into something nobody has any idea how it will work.

“So you give people the chance to make this big decision. And then it’s a 51-49 [51.9%-48.1%] vote and you’re thinking: ‘Wow, 49% are not happy with the decision that’s going to change the country.’ For the 51%, I’m sure they realized pretty early after the vote: ‘What have we done?’ The two leaders of the leave campaign then stepped aside. It was a pure sign they were surprised themselves by the vote. OK, that can happen. But then, come on, let’s sit together again. Let’s think about it again and let’s vote again with the right information – not with the information you’ve got around the Brexit campaign. They were obviously not right, not all of them. It makes no sense at all.”

“The EU is not perfect but it was the best idea we had. History has always shown that when we stay together we can sort out problems. When we split then we start fighting. There was not one time in history where division creates success. So, for me, Brexit still makes no sense.”

VIDEO: Napoli fans celebrate Juventus win

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It is safe to say Napoli’s fans were pretty happy with the 1-0 win their team secured at Juventus on Sunday.

Kalidou Koulibaly powered home a header in stoppage as Napoli moved just one point behind Juventus, who sit top of the Serie A table, with four games to go. The title race is well and truly on in Italy.

The scenes across Naples after the game were incredible and when the players arrived back at the airport at around 3 a.m. local time they were greeted by thousands of adoring fans.

Take a look at the video below. Wow.