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Five things we learned in the Premier League today

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Today proved telling in the Premier League.

Manchester United looked to have broken through against a stubborn Fulham side, only to see it all slip away again at the end.

Meanwhile, one frustrating moment undid Everton at White Hart Lane, but both sides impressed as they search for an outside shot at the top four.

So what did we learn from today’s action? Plenty.

Manchester United gave their critics even more fodder, Tim Sherwood continues to prove his doubters wrong, and Fulham grabbed Premier League safety by the shoestring, but they still have plenty to do as they attempt the Mt. Everest-like climb out of the basement.

1) Manchester United is simply not good enough for the Champions League.

To put it simply, there are too many great teams in the Premier League this season, and Manchester United isn’t one of them. Aging players like Nemanja Vidic and Darren Fletcher wouldn’t start for Arsenal, Chelsea, or Manchester City, let alone captain them.

Fletcher was to blame on Fulham’s first goal, with his horrible tracking of Steve Sidwell, despite looking back at the midfielder three times before his run.  Look at the previous Fulham results to the other top sides: Arsenal won collectively 5-1 over their two fixtures with Fulham.  Liverpool beat them 4-0. Manchester City put up four on this defense. Hell, even Hull City packed it on with six.

This Manchester United side is good, but not great, and the Champions League is for great teams. For the first time in Premier League history, Manchester United will not make the top 4. They’re currently nine points back, and it appears their challenge for Europe’s top competition may be too far out of reach.

2) Fulham are still in deep doo-doo, but they’re not done yet

Fulham showed a ton of heart today at Old Trafford, remaining composed even four minutes deep into extra time.  It’s the first time anyone’s really been able to say that all season. Things still look incredibly bleak for Rene Meulensteen’s bunch who sit four points from safety, but it’s not over just yet.

Being harsh on them today, they probably needed three points to ward off many of the worrywarts, and even Meulensteen may rue the two points dropped today come May. But the performance showed that this team still has heart, and still has fight – something that’s been impossible to say this year before today.

The visitors made EIGHTY-FOUR clearances today at Old Trafford and the Premier League’s most porous defense showed their new look may be a vast improvement.  Add Kostas Mitroglou on the other end in an attack that already boasts the classy addition of Lewis Holtby, and they could possibly make a run.

But first, they have to deal with Liverpool and Chelsea in the next three weeks. Yikes.

3) Tim Sherwood is the real deal

What Tim Sherwood has done at Tottenham Hotspur cannot be understated.  A relative unknown to anyone outside White Hart Lane at the time of his appointment, he has taken a mentally broken side and revitalized them.

There’s a big difference between the temporary boost a team often sees at the time of a managerial switch and what Sherwood is accomplishing at Spurs.  Andre Villas Boas benefited greatly from Daniel Levy’s brilliant summer transfer window, but the Portugese manager never could quite make things fit with the vast quantity of new players.

Sherwood, in under two months, has managed to do what Villas Boas could not.  He’s revitalized Emmanuel Adebayor, slotted Roberto Soldado into a more fitting role (which, with his form this year, has sometimes been on the bench), and has found the key to unlocking Christian Eriksen’s Premier League success.

While Adebayor’s revival will undoubtedly get the headlines, and deservedly so, flying under the radar is Sherwood’s ability to find the proper use of Eriksen.  A lost child in a supermarket under Villas Boas, he’s been freed of his touchline shackles and allowed to roam the pitch more freely under Sherwood and the results have been bright.

Expect more victories under Sherwood, and while it would seem the top four may elude them once again if Liverpool continue on this torrid run, but the future is bright.

4) Everton are a quality side, but…

Today Everton produced enough to challenge a Tottenham Hotspur side, and Roberto Martinez’s tactics relied on pressure and hard work to earn the ball and create chances.

source: Getty Images
Steven Naismith was no Romelu Lukaku up front today for Everton as they fell 1-0 to Tottenham despite playing well enough to earn a point.

Unfortunately, they were undone by one key miss: Romelu Lukaku.  Without a true striker, especially their loanee who’s been stellar up front this year, Everton were forced to start Steven Naismith at the top of their attack, and they paid the price.  Naismith was wasteful, and often undid much of his own hard work with a lack of finishing.

The forward finished without a shot technically, but he botched a few chances, and in the end finished with 10 of his 16 completed passes headed backwards.

Martinez has proved a fantastic hire in replace of David Moyes, and the addition of Lacina Traore will surely help Everton make it through however long Lukaku is out with little damage, but a loss today to a team so close in the table hurts dearly.

Long story short: Everton will be fine, and are easily a top-7 side, but any more wasteful performances and it doesn’t matter who their manager is or how great his plans are fit to beating the opponent.

5) This miserable season at Manchester United still is mostly not David Moyes’ fault

Looking at everything going wrong at Manchester United, little of it has anything to do with David Moyes.  He ultimately may be the sacrificial lamb in a year that is wholly unacceptable by United’s standards, but peering around the squad, Sir Alex Ferguson and the rest of the United front office handed Moyes a group of players doomed to fail.

Nemanja Vidic is aging. So is Patrice Evra. Robin van Persie’s age hasn’t affected his output, but it has affected his ability to stay match fit.  Ashley Young has never fit in at Manchester United despite their refusal to replace him. Shinji Kagawa may not actually be the right style for the Premier League.  And Wayne Rooney can only carry so much on his back.

While his insistence to play Adnan Januzaj on the wing can certainly be criticized (and rightly so), his tactics against Fulham today or mostly throughout the season cannot.  Manchester United pumped a total of 82 crosses into Fulham’s box, and while it took a while to click, it eventually worked, and noting Fulham’s lack of outside defending in recent months, the plan makes perfect sense.  What did United in was a pair of terrible mistakes at the back, something that cannot be fixed by the manager.

Moyes did incredibly well to bring in Juan Mata, and the Spaniard has arguably been the best player at Old Trafford since his arrival, including setting up United’s breakthrough today.  Bringing in Marouane Fellaini was ultimately a failure, but hindsight is 20/20, and at the time they desperately need a physical midfielder (they still do).

If I was a Manchester United fan, I’d be pointing equal fingers at whoever handed Moyes this aging, fragile defensive unit that has let them down time and again this season.

Honorable mention: Dan Burn is the real deal

Whether or not Fulham stay up this season (chances are they still won’t) the 6-foot-5 21-year-old has opened plenty of eyes. He was a force in preventing Manchester United from landing 64 of their 82 crosses.  He made 22 clearances against the Red Devils – a staggering number – including 15 with his head.

What seemed like a desperate move in recalling Burn from his season-long loan spell at Birmingham has turned into a master-class decision by Meulensteen.  The move likely cost Fulham a bit of cash to cancel his loan, and upset a great deal of Birmingham City brass.

However, with Brede Hangeland aging and slow to react, Burn has emerged as not just Fulham’s best defender, but possibly a solid option for a top team in the future.  He’s reminding many Fulham fans of the Hangeland of old, something that many at Craven Cottage could get very used to.

MLS Cup: Toronto FC all about the team

Toronto FC defender Nick Hagglund, center, celebrates his goal against the Montreal Impact with teammates Michael Bradley, right, and Steven Beitashour (33) during the second half of the second leg of MLS Eastern Conference championship series, in Toronto on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
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Toronto, Ontario (AP) Team has been the theme for Toronto FC in the buildup to the MLS Cup final.

From boisterous practices to team-first media interviews, the All for One club motto has been plain to see ahead of the championship game Saturday against the visiting Seattle Sounders.

“You don’t get to this point by mistake or by accident. You get here because a group of special guys who have all bought into a philosophy, an identity,” said Toronto midfielder Will Johnson, an MLS Cup winner with Real Salt Lake and Portland.

“I say the same about Seattle. They’re bought into what they’re good at. We’re bought in, very motivated and want to sacrifice and put aside egos to get to a point as a team to compete for the big trophy.”

[ MORE: Designing the best UCL Round of 16 ]

Star striker Jozy Altidore, no fan of chatting with the media, was downright prickly when a reporter asked him if he had taken time to reflect on his personal journey to the championship game.

“No,” he said definitively. “This isn’t personal, this is a team game. We’re here to try to help Toronto to be a winning team. This has nothing to do with individuals. So it has nothing to do with what I’ve been through. This is what the city’s been through, what the fans have been through, what this club has been through. That’s far more important.”

Fullback Justin Morrow, a seven-year MLS veteran, has never played this deep into the season before.

“Each week we build on top of each other and we get closer as the year goes on. It really feels like it’s a culmination this week,” he said.

[ UCL: Who can Arsenal, Man City, Leicester draw? ]

Coach Greg Vanney has made a point of praising the entire squad, including reserves who function as the scout team in practice. While he has done soccer’s equivalent of shortening his bench for the playoffs, the squad has stayed on point. If anyone has beefs, they have been kept to themselves.

That’s no small feat considering the salaries on the squad range from $7.12 million for star striker Sebastian Giovinco to $51,500 for youngsters Mo Babouli and Tsubasa Endoh.

For Morrow, being part of a tight-knit group allows you to forget that it is your job.

“When teams aren’t doing well, players tend to focus on that – their job and not about the other people on the team,” Morrow said. “And I think when teams are doing well, it becomes about the relationships between the players.”

Report: Atlanta United to acquire Parkhurst; Guardado hopes fading

COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 12:  Michael Parkhurst #4 of the Columbus Crew SC controls the ball against against the Philadelphia Union on March 12, 2016 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
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Atlanta United is adding MLS experience to its high-flying international acquisitions.

The expansion side is set to acquire Michael Parkhurst from the Columbus Crew, according to a report from The Sporting News.

[ MORE: Mourinho worried about Zorya pitch ]

Parkhurst, 32, has been a fixture for the Crew since returning to MLS after stints with Nordsjælland and FC Augsburg. The 25-times capped American defender would join a relatively loaded expansion unit that reportedly will also add veteran Chicago goalkeeper Sean Johnson.

Unfortunately for Atlanta, it seems the first-year club’s hopes of landing Mexican star Andres Guardado are fading.

From Ives Galarcep for The Sporting News:

The club has one remaining designated player slot it is expected to fill ahead of its inaugural 2017 season, but transfer target Andres Guardado appears less likely to be the player to fill that slot, sources have told Goal USA.

The Crew was a massive disappointment last season, failing to make the playoffs one season after making a run to the MLS Cup Final. Is Parkhurst a good gamble for Atlanta?

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Men in Blazers podcast: Conte v. Pep, Cherries comeback, Spurs-Swans

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Rog and Davo relive the tactical battle between Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola, marvel at tiny Bournemouth’s comeback win over high-flying Liverpool and duck-and-cover while recapping Spurs 5-0 Swansea.

All of the MiB content — pods, videos and stories can be seen here, but to really stay in touch, follow, subscribe, click here:

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Mourinho accepts Zorya compliment, but says best coach “doesn’t exist”

Manchester United's coach Jose Mourinho, centre, attends a training session with his team at Chernomorets stadium in Odessa, Ukraine, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, ahead of Thursday's Europa League group A soccer match against FC Zorya Luhansk. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
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On the eve of his side playing Manchester United in the UEFA Europa League, Zorya Luhansk boss Yuriy Vernydub called counterpart Jose Mourinho the best manager in the world.

And Mourinho disagreed.

Well, in principle.

[ MORE: Designing the best UCL Round of 16 ]

The Portuguese was flattered by Vernydub’s compliments and isn’t one to turn down praise. Yet at the same time, Mourinho thinks a coach’s success is year-to-year. There’s no clear best in the sport, according to Mou.

From ManUtd.com:

“He was nice by saying that but I don’t think he is right. I don’t think there is a best coach in the world. It doesn’t exist in my opinion. Every season one has to win the FIFA Gold Ball but I don’t think there is the best. You can say the best of the year and that I agree. Every year there is one with the most important result. So he is just being nice, no more than that.”

That’s almost meta, Mou.

Conceptually we understand, and Mourinho would feel he was the best in the world three seasons ago but not last year or this year (yet). Yet it’s difficult to say that the bodies of work from Pep Guardiola, Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Unai Emery, Antonio Conte, Luis Enrique, and Jurgen Klopp couldn’t be measured against each other, right?

[ MORE: United, Saints advancement scenarios ]

Onto the little picture Mourinho is worried about a potentially rock hard pitch at Zorya affecting the game. This, from the BBC:

“The pitch is very hard, the pitch is very icy,” said United boss Mourinho.

“They are putting warmth on the top of it, but the pitch is very difficult and people cannot make miracles. Let’s hope everything goes well.”

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