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What we learned from Manchester United’s Champions League disappointment at Olympiakos

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With apologies to Olympiakos, today’s takeaways are all about Manchester United. Though the Greek champions deserve kudos for one of the biggest victories in club history, the favorites’ inability to become the sixth Champions League group winner (in six games) to claim victory is Tuesday’s big story. While some where picking Míchel’s team to spring an upset in Piraeus, nobody thought it would be this easy, with United held to one shot on target in Olympiakos’s 2-0 win.

Within the context of an unexpectedly disappointing 2013-14, Manchester United’s takeaways all fit a bigger narrative. With an attack that lacked both direction and intensity, the Red Devils failed to rise to Tuesday’s occasion. As a result, they’re on the brink of missing the competition’s quarterfinals for a third straight season.

(MORE: Manchester United sinks to new depths in 2-0 Champions League loss at Olympiakos)

  • Manchester United couldn’t get up for a big game

Manchester United aren’t alive in either the League or FA Cups. The gap between themselves and fourth place Liverpool in the Premier League suggests they have almost no chance to finish in England’s Champions League spots. Their only way to avoid missing the competition for the first time since in 18 years is to pull a 2011-12 Chelsea and run the table. They need to  win it all.

Yet against an Olympiakos team that would fail to place one of their starters in United’s Tuesday XI, the Red Devils were clearly second best. Their offensive shape portrayed a side playing not to lose, with the Red Devils’ spacing more indicative of a team trying to use up time than combine for opportunities. This was Alex Ferguson’s typical shut it down on the road plan, only it wasn’t Alex Ferguson’s team. This was a team that allowed the game to be dictated to them – one that gave itself no opportunity to generate (let alone seize upon) opponents’ mistakes.

Manchester United was completely devoid of urgency in what should have been their most important game of the season. If they wanted to play for a 0-0, they should have fought for that result, however misguided that plan seems. Instead, they allowed Olympiakos a first half lead, seemed content to let Joel Campbell try to double in shortly after half time, and were relegated to the latest in a season full of exasperating results.

source: AP

  • It’s unclear what David Moyes wants Manchester United to do going forward

Back to United’s attack. The team’s possession number hovered at around 60 percent for the entire game, but in a first half hour where they could have used that edge to press for a vital away goal, United rarely seemed interested in establishing a presence in Olympiakos’s defensive third. Releasing both fullbacks early and relying on Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley to support the defense, United also forced Wayne Rooney to abandon his strike partner, Robin Van Persie, to fill the hole in midfield. Though Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia were pinching in from their flanks, the lack of combination play through the middle left Van Persie neglected and isolated. It wasn’t until late in the match that United’s best finisher started seeing chances.

That’s what United did. The lingering question is what were they supposed to do. Were they supposed to use the middle, with those high-pushing fullbacks stretching Olympiakos’s midfield? Or were they supposed to go wide, as they’ve gone so often this season, with Young and Valencia giving the Red Devils more players to pounce on Chris Smalling and Patrice Evra crosses?

Who knows. United were so poor on Tuesday, it’s pure speculation to guess what they were trying to do going forward.

  • The Red Devils are too mistake-prone to play for a low-scoring game

Let’s assume Manchester United wanted a slow pace. They wanted to use their superior talent to manage the game, maintain possession, and limit Olympiakos’s chances. Let’s concede they would have been happy with a 0-0, thrilled to see a counter attack or a set piece result in an away goal.

Let’s also acknowledge that with Manchester United’s talent, this is a terrible choice.

Even without Juan Mata (cup-tied), Manchester United’s strength is its depth and variety in attack. They have Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney as focal points. In Michael Carrick, they have a registra that’s capable of getting them the ball. With pieces like Young, Valencia, Shinji Kagawa, and Danny Welbeck, David Moyes had a series of imperfect yet useful pieces he could mix-and-match to take advantage of his opponents weaknesses. As evidenced in their group stage performances against Bayer Leverkusen (nine goals over two games), United’s attack can take advantage of Champions League’s middle tier.

But the team also has a mistake prone defense, with age continuing to show in the play of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. They also have a central midfield incapable of protecting that duo, and while neither of those factors were evident on Olympiakos’s first goal, each came into play on the second. Cleverley lost possession, Carrick failed to make a crucial tackle, and Ferdinand did not get out to meet Joel Campbell’s shot. Again, Manchester United was left reliant on the shot stopping of David de Gea, only this time, the talent Spaniard couldn’t save them.

With a back line that features Chris Smalling, Vidic, and Ferdinand, Moyes can’t play for clean sheets. When his defenders are on their game, those results will certainly come, but when they’re not clicking, the Red Devils don’t have the guile of John Terry, Gary Cahill, and Branislav Ivanovic – a trio with the ability to preserve a result even if the initial plan doesn’t work.

If Moyes’s initial plan was to play for a clean sheet on the road, it was a poor one. While that may be one of the first pages in the Champions League playbook, it was also a poor fit got his personnel.

Blessed with elite attacking talent, Moyes should have played for a high scoring result. Instead, he allowed his team to leave Piraeus trailing by two.

Is NYCFC showing Mix Diskerud the door? (Photo)

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 01:  Mikkel 'Mix' Diskerud #8 of the USA looks on during the singing of the national anthem prior to their international friendly match against the Korea Republic at StubHub Center on February 1, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. The USA defeated the Korea Republic 2-0.  (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
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Since arriving on the New York City scene two years ago it’s fair to summarize Mix Diskerud’s tenure with New York City FC as a disappointment.

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While the expectations of a quick transition from life in Europe to MLS were surely massive, the 26-year-old midfielder has failed to live up to the billing of not only being one of the NYCFC’s highest-paid players but also as a potential U.S. Men’s National Team candidate.

Diskerud saw his playing time dwindle down from 23 starts in 2015 to nine this past season under new manager Patrick Vieira, and it doesn’t appear that the Norwegian-American will see an influx of opportunities during the upcoming 2017 season.

Rumors have surfaced throughout the offseason about NYCFC potentially buying out Diskerud’s contract, however, the midfielder’s cryptic post to social media on Sunday afternoon suggests that he may not be in New York for much longer.

Somebody told me I'm not part of a plan and if he was I – he'd run like the others ran 'cause the budget is tight and binding contracts might be broken, to improve 5-6 positions – in exchange for only one man. – He went on to say; "the message is clear – unless you're clueless – 'cause you've lived it all'year since the budget is tight and binding contracts might not need to be broken if…. you crack, kneel or leave the hemisphere" – Who could tell so straight and clearly tales of destiny I fight sincerely when mental games are attempting aims to make me rage severely? – On and on the conversation went about money spent and special rules and mgt's tools and something about allocation being different cent – I wish I had right there – my pad 'cause then my favorite line fused by Robin Williams spine would play dead poets – real bad

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It has been suggested that Diskerud would possibly consider a return to Europe in the event that his contract was in fact bought out, however, the difference in salaries would likely be drastic.

According to figures released by the MLS Players’ Union, Diskerud made $761,250 in 2016, which was the fourth-highest salary on NYCFC books behind only David Villa, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo, each of whom were classified as Designated Players.

Report: Aguero seeking Real Madrid move at season’s end

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - JANUARY 21:  Sergio Aguero of manchester City in action during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur at Etihad Stadium on January 21, 2017 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Gabriel Jesus was a revelation for Manchester City before suffering an injury, but even with a spot in the lineup for the time being Sergio Aguero may not be coming back to Manchester City next season.

[ MORE: Lucky Man United, Mourinho begin trophy haul ]

According to the Sun, Spanish giants Real Madrid are eyeing up a move for Aguero in the hopes that the Argentine striker will join the club at the conclusion of the Premier League season.

Prior to joining City back in 2011, Aguero played five seasons in La Liga with Atletico Madrid, where he scored 101 goals in all competitions for the Rojiblancos.

While Aguero is likely to hold his starting spot for some time due to Jesus’ injured metatarsal, manager Pep Guardiola had heavily favored the young forward over Aguero since officially joining the club in January.

U.S. U-20s paired with Mexico, El Salvador in CONCACAF knockout round

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Tab Ramos’ side completed their first task, but now the U.S. Under-20 national team has its next challenge lying in front of them.

[ MORE: Whitecaps acquire Brek Shea from Orlando City in trade ]

The U.S. U-20s finished second in Group B at the CONCACAF U-20 Championship after winning two of its three group stage matches.

Now, Mexico and El Salvador await the U-20s in the classification stage with a spot at May’s Under-20 World Cup in South Korea on the line.

During the classification round there will be two groups of three teams, with the top two teams advancing to the World Cup. Each group winner will meet in the CONCACAF Championship final.

Classification stage schedule

Group D

Feb. 27 — U.S. U-20s vs. Mexico

Mar. 1 — Mexico vs. El Salvador

Mar. 3 — U.S. U-20s vs. El Salvador

Group E

Feb. 27 — Panama vs. Honduras

Mar. 1 — Honduras vs. Costa Rica

Mar. 3 — Panama vs. Costa Rica

Claude Puel calls for video replay after Gabbiadini goal called off

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 26:  Manolo Gabbiadini of Southampton takes on Eric Bailly of Manchester United during the EFL Cup Final match between Manchester United and Southampton at Wembley Stadium on February 26, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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Manolo Gabbiadini performed brilliantly in Sunday’s EFL Cup final, but was the Southampton striker unfairly gipped of a hat-trick?

[ MORE: Lucky Man United, Mourinho begin trophy haul ]

Saints manager Claude Puel certainly believes so.

[ MORE: Three things from Man United’s win vs. Southampton ]

While the back-and-forth final between Southampton and Manchester United presented a tremendous matchup, the Saints had every right to be furious with the officiating in the early going after Gabbiadini’s 11th minute finish was called off for offsides.

“I would like, of course, video in the future for these situations,” said Puel. “It’s very hard when we see this game to lose. It was cruel.”

Gabbiadini went on to score a pair of goals at the tail end of the first half and early in the second stanza, but Puel was pleased with his side’s resilience after going down 2-0 inside the opening 38 minutes.

“We kept the good attitude and spirit to stay in the game after going 2-0 down,” said the Southampton boss. “We played since the beginning of the season every two or three days. We played to a strong and fantastic level. It’s important now to continue this work, to put away this disappointment and come back in the Premier League with this strength and this quality.”

Video replay has been a common discussion for some time now, but more leagues are beginning to examine the possibility. FIFA is prepared to introduce new experimental trials over the coming months and could present a form of replay at next summer’s World Cup in Russia.