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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.

Watch Live: Watford vs. Everton (Lineups, Stream)

during the Barclays Premier League match between Watford and Everton at Vicarage Road on April 9, 2016 in Watford, England.
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Watford host Everton on Saturday at Vicarage Road (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) in a battle between two teams hoping to get back on track.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE HERE

Both clubs will be eager to turn around their recent form which has seen Walter Mazzarri‘s Watford lose three of their last four Premier League games, while Everton has just one win in their last nine games in the Premier League under Ronald Koeman.

In team news Watford start Britos and Behrami as they return to the team, while Janmaat is back in the squad. Everton start Kevin Mirallas and Gerard Deulofeu out wide and Ramiro Funes Mori in central defense as Ross Barkley and Phil Jagielka drop to the bench.

LINEUPS

Watford: Gomes; Zuniga, Prödl, Britos, Holebas; Guedioura, Behrami, Capoue; Amrabat, Okaka, Deeney. Subs: Pantilimon, Kabasele, Janmaat, Watson, Success, Sinclair, Ighalo

Everton: Stekelenburg; Coleman, Williams, Funes Mori, Baines; Barry, Gueye, McCarthy; Mirallas, Lukaku, Deulofeu. Subs: Joel, Holgate, Jagielka, Cleverley, Barkley, Lennon, Valencia

Altidore earns U.S. Male Player of the Year honors, Pulisic wins Young POY

Toronto FC forward Jozy Altidore (17) reacts after scoring against the Montreal Impact during the first half of the second leg of MLS Eastern Conference championship series, in Toronto on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)
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While Jozy Altidore and his Toronto FC side have the chance to take home MLS Cup on Saturday night, the U.S. Men’s National Team forward earned an award of his own in the build up.

[ MORE: MLS commissioner Garber addresses expansion and more ]

On Friday night, U.S. Soccer named Altidore the federation’s Male Player of the Year for 2016, while Borussia Dortmund attacker Christian Pulisic has won Male Young Player of the Year honors.

Altidore takes home Male POY honors for the second time in his career after first winning the award back in 2013.

Altidore narrowly won POY honors with 32 percent of the vote, beating out Bobby Wood (30 percent) and Geoff Cameron (15 percent).

“This is truly an honor to receive this award. It’s also very humbling when you look at such a talented group of teammates nominated for this accolade along with you,” Altidore said. “At the end of the day, any success I have had on the field this year is in large part due to their success and contributions.”

The 27-year-old Altidore scored 10 goals for TFC during the regular season, before adding five goals and four assists for the MLS side ahead of MLS Cup. In his time with the USMNT, Altidore has netted six goals and two assists in 2016, leading all players.

Pulisic found the net three times this year for the USMNT, while excelling in the Bundesliga with Dortmund. The 18-year-old has made 15 appearances in all competitions this season for the German giants and scored two goals for Thomas Tuchel’s squad.

Russian official Mutko seeks to retain FIFA Council seat

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - OCTOBER 21: Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Vitaly Mutko attends at 'Vecherniy (Evening) Urgant' TV show on Channel 1 during FIFA 2018 World Cup Russia Official Mascot final choice event at Ostankino on October 21, 2016 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images)
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NYON, Switzerland (AP) Under fire for his role in Russia’s state doping program, Vitaly Mutko has begun the process of a FIFA integrity check to be an election candidate.

[ MORE: Can Spurs overcome their historic results form at Old Trafford? ]

Mutko, who heads Russian operations to organize the 2018 World Cup, has been elected by European soccer leaders since 2009 to represent them on FIFA’s ruling committee.

[ MORE: Man City visits Leicester with two sides on opposite ends of table ]

His FIFA seat is due for re-election in April, though potential candidates must pass a vetting and eligibility check by a review panel appointed by the world soccer body.

On Friday, Mutko was implicated in widespread evidence detailed by Canadian investigator Richard McLaren that he oversaw a state-backed doping program as sports minister.

Hours later, UEFA said Mutko was among five applicants for four vacant seats on the FIFA Council. The April 5 vote is by 55 European member federations.

Mutko has retained his FIFA positions and presidency of the Russian soccer federation since McLaren’s interim report was published in July.

The World Anti-Doping Agency then called on the FIFA ethics committee to investigate Mutko based on McLaren’s evidence.

The full investigation report release on Friday seemed to confirm that Mutko was asked to cover up a positive doping test by a Russian Premier League player from Uzbekistan.

Mutko was also implicated as sports minister in overseeing widespread doping programs of Russian athletes who competes at the 2012 London Olympics, 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, and the 2013 track and field world championships, held in Moscow.

It is unclear if FIFA’s ethics committee has a mandate to prosecute non-soccer cases.

Asked on Friday if UEFA could launch its own investigation of Mutko, leaders of the European body deferred to FIFA’s ongoing vetting process.

“We have written to FIFA with the five potential candidates and the procedure is FIFA has to go through this eligibility check,” UEFA legal director Alasdair Bell said.

Bell acknowledged that the McLaren report “appears to contain some serious allegations” though noted that “these are contested.”

Three of Mutko’s long-standing colleagues are standing down from their FIFA Council seats from Europe: Michel D’Hooghe of Belgium, Senes Erzik of Turkey, and Marios Lefkaritis of Cyprus.

UEFA said the other election contenders are: Sandor Csanyi, a current UEFA executive committee member from Hungary; Geir Thorsteinsson, president of Iceland’s soccer federation; former AC Milan player Dejan Savicevic of Montenegro; and Costakis Koutsokoumnis, the Cyprus federation president.

Neymar out, Arda Turan has another chance for Barcelona

BARCELONA, SPAIN - DECEMBER 06:  Arda Turan of Barcelona (R) celebrates with Lucas Digne as he scores their second goal during the UEFA Champions League Group C match between FC Barcelona and VfL Borussia Moenchengladbach at Camp Nou on December 6, 2016 in Barcelona, .  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Fresh off scoring a hat trick, Turkey midfielder Arda Turan is hoping for another chance to prove he can play alongside Barcelona’s best.

[ MORE: Man City faces Leicester without Aguero, Fernandinho ]

With Neymar suspended for Saturday’s Spanish league match at Osasuna, Turan is likely to take his spot next to Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez in the defending champion’s vaunted attack.

[ MORE: Arsenal looks to continue unbeaten run against Stoke City ]

Turan filled in superbly for Neymar on Tuesday when he scored his first hat trick for Barcelona to lead the team to a 4-0 victory over Borussia Moenchengladbach in the Champions League.

The treble took Turan’s scoring total for the season to eight goals, making him Barcelona’s third-leading scorer behind Messi (20) and Suarez (12).

Even though nobody doubts Neymar is the more talented of the two, the Brazil striker has managed only six goals despite playing 400 minutes more than Turan this season.

Neymar’s suspensions from both the `Gladbach and Osasuna matches were for accumulation of bookings in both competitions.

“Arda is scoring lots of goals. When he plays on the wing he has many skills he can draw on,” Barcelona coach Luis Enrique said. “He can also play in midfield. I am happy for him.”

Turan, however, has proven to be a tough piece for Luis Enrique to fit into Barcelona’s talent-laden puzzle.

As his coach said, Turan has impressed on the left side of the attack. But that spot has Neymar’s name stamped on it, and Turan has struggled when asked to play further back.

While Turan flourishes when given space and the freedom to break down defenses, he looks uncomfortable in Barcelona’s demanding precision passing approach.

His unease with the defensive tasks that playing in midfield entails was clear in last weekend’s match against Real Madrid when Turan went on as a late substitute to help protect a one-goal lead.

Instead, Turan’s foul on Marcelo conceded a dangerous free kick that Luka Modric didn’t waste, placing a cross for Sergio Ramos to head in a 90th-minute equalizer and snatch a 1-1 draw that kept Madrid six points clear at the top of the Spanish table.

Turan took a lot of heat for that foul in the Barcelona sports media, meaning his three goals against `Gladbach couldn’t have come at a better time.

“We haven’t played well recently and haven’t gotten good results,” Turan said. “We tried to get the best possible result and play at our best (against `Gladbach).”

Now 29, Turan developed into one of the league’s top attacking midfielders through four seasons with Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid, helping the once second-rate team become one of Europe’s best with league, Copa del Rey and Europa League titles.

But when Barcelona called in 2015, Turan changed clubs despite knowing that he couldn’t play until 2016 because of Barcelona’s FIFA-imposed one-year ban on new players for breaking its transfer rules regarding underage players.

The former Galatasaray standout also joined Barcelona well aware that competition for playing time, never mind a regular starting role, would be fierce with the likes of Messi, Suarez and, above all, Neymar.

After failing to find a spot following his debut midway through last campaign, Turan made a promising start to this season when Neymar was away playing for Brazil.

He scored twice in a Spanish Super Cup victory over Sevilla and notched Barcelona’s first league goal of the season. But once Neymar was back from helping Brazil win the Olympic gold medal, Turan was back on the bench.

[ MORE: Watford, Everton meet with both clubs looking to halt poor form ]

The reserve role clearly didn’t suit him. Only one of his goals this season has come as a substitute, when he sparked a 2-1 comeback at `Gladbach in September.

Unlike this week’s second win over `Gladbach, which came with Barcelona already qualified for the Champions League’s knockout rounds, Barcelona visits Pamplona on Saturday needing to break a run of three straight league draws.

Promoted Osasuna appears to be the optimum rival to end that skid. It is in last place and hasn’t won in seven home matches since its return to the first division.