Quick Six: Liverpool thwarts Manchester City, Hillsborough remembered, and the rest of the headlines from the PL weekend

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1. Kompany error moves Liverpool one step closer to history

Maybe it was the occasion that left Manchester City stalled in the blocks, but until the teams returned after halftime, Liverpool were the decidedly better side at Anfield. It was only after the wakeup happened that it felt almost inevitable, with the Citizens pulling back Raheem Sterling and Martin Skrtel’s goals by the 63rd minute. With David Silva picking up the slack from Yaya Touré’s departure, the Citizens looked set to embrace their talent’s promise.

It’s a subtle irony that one of the team’s most talented players, captain Vincent Kompany, undid that promise, but for well over a year now, the Belgian rearguard, whose authoritative steps into midfield leave him capable of dominating, has been an accident waiting to happen. In the 78th minute on Saturday, that accident came via a shanked clearance and some Philippe Coutinho opportunism, sending City to a 3-2 loss.

(MORE, Liverpool 3-2 Manchester City: Reds seal dramatic win to stay top)

It’s tempting to see Sunday’s match through that lens — the one forged by Kompany’s error — but that shortchanges Liverpool. The Reds put themselves in position to capitalize on the mistake, and while City’s reaction continues to feed the feeling that they are the more talented, more capable side, talent and capability came up short. Instead, it was Liverpool’s early poise and late execution that pushed its own talent seven points clear of City.

On a 10-match winning streak, the Reds are closing in on their first title in 24 years, a relevance not even Liverpool fans could have predicted eight months ago.

2. Title picture: A little clearer, but still unresolved

The anticipation we felt ahead of Sunday’s showdown usually gives way to clarity, but although Liverpool  have a more firm grasp on the title, the race is far from over, a status that serves as an anticlimax to Sunday’s dramatic result. Thanks in part of Chico Flores’s early red card at the Liberty Stadium, Chelsea was able to stay within two points of the top, a 1-0 win at Swansea City giving the Blues their 23rd win of the season.

(MORE, Swansea City 0-1 Chelsea: Ba breaks through vs 10-man Swans)

The results help bring April 27 into focus, with Chelsea’s visit to Anfield giving us our second Match of the Season this month. With a win, only games against Norwich City and Cardiff City will stand between the Blues and another title, provided they also defeat Sunderland on Saturday. Yet with that Liverpool showdown wedged between Champions League semifinal matches, timing works against Chelsea. Over the course of nine days, José Mourinho’s regulars will be forced to push through any end-of-season fatigue and challenge for both titles.

It’s a schedule that also puts stress on the Sunderland and Norwich matches, where Chelsea will have to rotate players in preparation for its more important games. While that makes it more likely the Blues will slip between now and season’s end, the team’s mid-week performance against Paris Saint-Germain serves as a warning. José Mourinho’s team can’t be counted out.

3. England COMMEMORATES 25th anniversary of Hillsborough

Between previous anniversaries, continuing controversies, and the increased talk of bringing standing areas back into English League soccer, the tragedy that befell 96 people in Sheffield hasn’t been far from our thoughts. Yet there was still an indelible poignance about how the league celebrated the disaster’s 25th anniversary, something that went beyond the moment of silence and the seven-minute delay to each match’s kickoff.

It was the unanimity. It was the solemnity. It was the reflection of a soccer generation that’s been brought up in the memory of Hillsborough, one that’s seen England’s football culture remake itself in the wake of the loss.

It was the accord amongst supporters around the country who acknowledged the families’ unimaginable loss. It was the lesson, that no one should have to hear why a loved one will never come home from a match.

Of course, the most poignant of the remembrances at Anfield, from the chilling moment of silence to the unforgettable rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone. The video, above, captures the weekend’s spirit, one that saw a soccer nation come together to acknowledge the 96 it lost.

4. Win at Sunderland sees Everton claim fourth place

It was easy to forget, in the wake of last week’s win over Arsenal, that Everton had yet to actually claim fourth place, but with the Gunners creating more drama for themselves in Saturday’s FA Cup semifinal, the Toffees were finally able to take hold of the Premier League’s last Champions League spot. With Wes Brown’s 75th minute own goal in Sunderland, Roberto Martínez’s team moved two points ahead of Arsenal, making up the game in hand that made last week’s result so important.

(MORE: Fabianski the hero, as Arsenal beat Wigan on penalties to reach FA Cup final)

(MORE, Sunderland 0-1 Everton: Are the Black Cats sunk? (video))

With a match against Manchester City still on the schedule, Everton’s two-point lead isn’t exactly safe, but it also may be too much to expect an Arsenal team that’s winless in four (in league) to win out. The Gunners’ run-in is easy, but they also have two matches on the road, where the team has a negative goal-difference this season. This isn’t a Premier League titan cleaning up against the league’s weaker sides. It’s a team lacking drive and identity being asked to summon a drive it lacks.

In theory, Everton can still draw a match and control its own destiny, provided Arsenal doesn’t make up the six-goal deficit it has in goal difference. More practically, the Toffees may have a little more breathing room. As Saturday’s match against Wigan shows, Arsenal is capable of playing down to its competition.

source: AP5. Are these the last days of Arsène Wenger?

Arsenal eventually came back to eliminate Wigan, but the game was far closer than most expected. The Latics went up through Jordi Gomez and eventually took the Gunners to penalty kicks, where two Lukasz Fabianski saves got Arsène Wenger’s side into the final. Against a team Arsenal’s talent should have easily managed, the Gunners produced another inexplicable result.

It’s starting to become easier to imagine Wenger moving on: even if Arsenal does finish fourth; even if the Gunners do win the FA Cup. While he is one of the most important people in the club’s history, he’s also somebody who, at this point in his career, seems incapable of getting his squad up for big games, be they against the Chelseas and Manchester Citys of the world or the Wigans and Birmingham Citys. Even when he comes close (against Bayern in Champions League), Arsenal’s left with little more than moral victories. When we see Chelsea in the Champions League semifinals, we’re reminded: Wenger’s rivals wouldn’t settle for so little.

With Arsenal outside the top our, struggling with a paved road to the FA Cup, it’s easier to convince Stan Kroenke the Gunners need to move on. The unsigned contract extension, the one Ivan Gazidis said was a done deal, may yet disappear. Whether it’s through Wenger leaving or the club making the call, an Arsène-less Arsenal becomes easier to imagine with each passing result.

6. Relegation battle: Progress for Fulham, Cardiff City

Whereas last week’s win left Fulham treading water, there was no mistaking the progress in this weekend’s result. Faced with a must-win against visiting Norwich City, Felix Magath’s team delivered, its 1-0 victory pulling it within two points of the 17th place Canaries. A horrible goal difference means the Cottagers need three points to reach safety, but having won three of five, those results are no longer mere hopes. Where we’ve been waiting for months for a relegation battler to go on a run, Fulham has finally delivered.

(MORE, Fulham 1-0 Norwich City: Great escape is on for the Cottagers (video))

After Cardiff’s Saturday upset at Southampton, though, the Bluebirds aren’t far behind, their 29 points leaving them four points from safety. And with teams like Aston Villa and Swansea City (both losers this weekend) volunteering to join the relegation battle, the league’s bottom three have more targets than just Norwich and West Brom. Instead of needing one of two teams to stumble, Fulham and Cardiff have four candidates to potentially take their places.

(MORE, Southampton 0-1 Cardiff City: Cala’s the man as Bluebirds bag huge win)

With Fulham involved, the term “Great Escape” is being thrown around, but there’s nothing remarkable about it. Under Magath, the Cottagers now look like a decent team. The same can’t be said for Norwich, Swansea, or Aston Villa, right now.

Miguel Almiron named MLS Newcomer of the Year

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Unsurprisingly, one of Atlanta United’s biggest stars took home some hardware on Monday after a stellar first season in Major League Soccer.

[ MORE: Previewing the MLS conference finals ]

Atlanta attacker Miguel Almiron was named MLS Newcomer of the Year today, beating out Chicago Fire forward Nemanja Nikolic and teammate Josef Martinez for the honor.

Almiron, who joined Atlanta from Argentine side Lanus, netted nine goals and added 14 assists for the Eastern Conference squad in 2017 and helped guide the club to the MLS Cup Playoffs after finishing fifth in the East.

The 23-year-old received an 37.38% average of the vote for the award, which was compiled based on votes from a combination of media members, MLS players and executives. Nikolic finished second with 24.92 percent, while Martinez checked in at number three.

Watch Live: Brighton and Hove Albion vs. Stoke City

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Chris Hughton looks to lead his Brighton and Hove Albion to a fifth-straight result as the Gulls welcome Stoke City to the Amex Stadium on Monday (Watch live at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

The Gulls have won two and drawn two, powered by goals from Glenn Murray and the playmaking of Pascal Gross.

Stoke’s 3-4-1-2 has Ramadan Sobhi, Eric Choupo-Moting, and Xherdan Shaqiri attacking the final third.

LINEUPS

Brighton and Hove Albion: Ryan, Bruno, Dunk, Duffy, Bong, Stephens, Propper, Knockaert, Izquierdo, Gross, Murray. Subs: Krul, Hemed, Goldson, Schelotto, Suttner, Brown.

Stoke City: Grant; Zouma, Shawcross, Wimmer; Diouf, Fletcher, Allen, Pieters; Shaqiri, Ramadan; Choupo-Moting. Subs: Haugaard; Berahino, Jese, Afellay, Martins Indi, Adam, Crouch.

World Cup bribes, death threats: Corrupt world of FIFA

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Hour after hour in a New York City courtroom, the schemes to corrupt world soccer are spilling out.

The millions of dollars in “inducements” to secure contracts to televise matches. The bribes sought by FIFA executives with the power to determine World Cup hosts. The death threats for cooperating with investigators.

It took the intervention of the U.S. Department of Justice to disrupt years of embezzlement by officials who abused roles in the global soccer governing body, FIFA, to enjoy a gilded lifestyle. Two years after a sprawling investigation of FIFA led to waves of arrests that shook soccer, the trial of three men is underway and about to enter its second week.

[ MORE: Pulis sacked | What’s next for WBA? ]

Though the trial in Brooklyn is dealing with corruption allegations before new FIFA leaders emerged in 2016, officials still prominent in soccer are not untouched by the evidence already heard in court – particularly relating to the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.

Here is a look at the talking points from the first week of the trial:

ON TRIAL

The three men on trial pleaded not guilty to charges they took part in a 24-year scheme involving at least $150 million in bribes paid by marketing firms in exchange for lucrative broadcasting and hosting rights for prestigious tournaments:

– Jose Maria Marin (Brazil): Former president of the Brazilian soccer federation arrested in a raid on a hotel in Zurich in May 2015.

– Juan Angel Napout (Paraguay): Swept up in a second wave of arrests at the same hotel in Zurich in December 2015. As president of South American soccer confederation CONMEBOL, Napout was portraying himself as an agent of reform who could clean up FIFA before being indicted.

– Manuel Burga (Peru): Former Peruvian soccer federation president detained along with Napout at the Baur au Lac hotel close to FIFA’s Swiss headquarters.

STAR WITNESS

More than 40 other officials, business executives and entities have been charged. Many have pleaded guilty, hoping to receive reduced sentences, including Alejandro Burzaco, the former head of the Argentine sports marketing company Torneos y Competencias, who is a star witness for the prosecution.

QATAR WORLD CUP

No decision has proved more toxic for FIFA than the 2010 vote that handed the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. The bid has been stained by suspicion of wrongdoing for years, although FIFA has been unable to uncover evidence it says would warrant stripping the Middle East of its first World Cup.

Usually quick to defend their integrity, the Qataris have been silent on the fresh claims of vote-buying divulged in court.

According to Burzaco, three South Americans were among 22 FIFA executive committee voters who took million-dollar bribes to support Qatar, which beat out the United States in the final round of voting in December 2010.

[ MORE: Busy week for PL big boys ]

A rule-breaking voting pact between Qatar and the Spain-Portugal campaign in the 2018 bidding – twice investigated by FIFA’s ethics committee but unproven – was given fresh credence in court by Burzaco, a trusted associate to the late former FIFA senior vice president Julio Grondona, to whom he channeled bribes worth millions.

Grondona was the most influential of South America’s trio of FIFA voters, and would surely have been indicted but for his death in July 2014. The other two voters, Ricardo Teixeira of Brazil and Nicolas Leoz of Paraguay, were indicted by U.S. prosecutors in 2015 but have avoided extradition from their home countries.

Burzaco testified to conversations and incidents with Grondona in 2011, including a confrontation about media reports of bid bribes with Qatari officials at the five-star Copacabana Palace Hotel in Rio de Janeiro.

An angry Grondona, Burzaco testified, later complained he got into “all these mess and scandal for only” $1.5 million while two others had fooled him and got $75 million. Those two, the court was told, were Teixeira and Sandro Rosell, a former Nike executive and then-president of Spanish club Barcelona who had business ties to Qatar.

FIFA has not directly commented on last week’s courtroom allegations, inevitably waiting for the conclusion of the trial. Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup has come under fresh attack in recent weeks by neighboring countries that have severed diplomatic ties with the emirate.

BROADCASTERS’ BRIBES

While the probity of the World Cup vote has been thrust back into the spotlight, much of the evidence so far relates to how officials sprayed illegal cash payments to secure broadcasting rights in the Americas.

Leading broadcasters have been implicated by Burzaco’s evidence about the trail of bribes, including Fox Sports (United States), Televisa (Mexico) and TV Globo (Brazil), which deny wrongdoing.

SLIT-THROAT GESTURE

The most dramatic moment in the opening week of the trial saw Burga accused of threatening Burzaco by making a slashing motion on his neck as the witness testified. Burga claimed he was scratching his throat but still had his bail conditions tightened. Burzaco earlier disclosed he became the target of death threats after it emerged he was cooperating with authorities.

SUICIDE

A former Argentine government official, Jorge Delhon, killed himself hours after the court was told he took millions in bribes in exchange for handing out television rights.

Jorge Delhon, a lawyer who worked in the administration of former Argentina President Cristina Fernandez, dealt with the now-defunct government program Futbol para Todos (Football for All), which broadcast local soccer matches on public TV. Burzaco implicated Delhon in taking bribes.

POLITICAL LINKS

The close ties in South America among lawmakers, judges and soccer leaders are becoming clearer.

In a series of WhatsApp messages detailed in court Wednesday, Napout revealed his links to the current state president of Paraguay, Horacio Cartes.

Napout passed on to Burzaco a request from Cartes’ private office to buy eight tickets for Argentina’s game against Iran at the 2014 World Cup. Around that time, Napout also noted CONMEBOL had been in a legal case with a businessman and that Cartes “resolved the entire trial and did it all because of me.”

Cartes also advised Napout to “stay close” to Grondona of Argentina to fulfil his ambition to lead CONMEBOL, the WhatsApp messages revealed.

When Argentina reached the semifinals, Napout asked Burzaco to get four tickets for Paraguay’s attorney general to buy. In a WhatsApp message, Napout tells Burzaco, “we have a trial over there. There are two judges mad because I refused” to get tickets.

CURRENT OFFICIALS

The desire by FIFA to characterize the trial as dealing with officials long banished from world soccer is made harder when officials currently influential in the game are mentioned in court.

FIFA’s current finance committee chairman, Alejandro Dominguez, was referred to during the trial on Wednesday as “not a very successful businessman (who) will probably request” a bribe.

Burzaco, the prosecution’s star witness, said he was told this about Dominguez by Napout in early 2015. Napout is a Paraguayan like Dominguez, and his predecessor as CONMEBOL leader.

Under current FIFA President Gianni Infantino, Dominguez is a key ally in Zurich as one of FIFA’s eight vice presidents and was rewarded with being made chairman of the finance panel.

Among many soccer officials whose photographs Burzaco was asked by prosecutors to identify on Tuesday were Sunil Gulati, the most influential American at FIFA, and Nasser Al-Khelaifi, the Qatari who heads French soccer club Paris Saint-Germain and broadcaster beIN Sports. Al-Khelaifi is under criminal investigation in Switzerland for suspected bribery linked to FIFA awarding beIN broadcast rights to the 2026 and 2030 World Cups.

The U.S. has not accused Gulati or Al-Khelaifi of any offenses.

EVADING JUSTICE

Several soccer officials indicted in 2015 are absent from court as they fight extradition to the United States:

– Jack Warner (Trinidad and Tobago): Charged in May 2015, four years after quitting as a FIFA vice president to avoid sanctions in the bribery case connected to a presidential election. Later banned for life by FIFA for misconduct during the 2018-2022 World Cup bidding process.

– Marco Polo del Nero (Brazil): Despite being charged with corruption, remains president of the Brazilian federation and met with FIFA’s Infantino during the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Del Nero fled Zurich in May 2015 when FIFA colleagues were arrested, quit the executive committee after missing meetings and was then indicted in the U.S. in December 2015.

– Nicolas Leoz (Paraguay): President of CONMEBOL from 1986 to 2013, when he resigned for receiving $130,000 in payments from a former FIFA marketing partner. Wanted in the U.S. on charges of receiving millions of dollars in bribes linked to marketing and television contracts, Leoz’s extradition was finally approved by a judge in Paraguay last week just as the FIFA trial was getting underway in Brooklyn.

– Ricardo Teixeira (Brazil): A former son-in-law of Joao Havelange, FIFA’s president in 1974-98, Teixeira quit as Brazilian federation head and a FIFA executive committee member in 2012 as corruption allegations mounted.

Status of FIFA cases: https://www.justice.gov/usao-edny/file/799016/download

More AP FIFA coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/FIFA

MLS Conference Final preview: Rematch spoilers?

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There’s an MLS Cup Final rematch on the cards if you play the favorites for this week’s conference finals.

Seattle beat Toronto in last season’s Cup final via penalty kicks, and Brian Schmetzer could again match wits with Greg Vanney come 4 p.m. ET on Dec. 9 in Ontario.

[ MORE: Pulis sacked | What’s next for WBA? ]

The finals begin Tuesday with a doubleheader of sorts, scheduled 90 minutes apart in Columbus and Houston.

Toronto FC vs. Columbus Crew
First leg — 8 p.m. ET Tuesday in Ohio
Second leg — 7:30 p.m. ET Nov. 29 in Ontario

The Trillium Cup rivals meet with a lot more on the line, and the subplots are many. Toronto FC is aiming to win its first MLS Cup title after a record-breaking season lifting the Supporters’ Shield. The Crew is being held hostage by its owner who’s done his level best to engineer a move to Austin come 2019, and the players are giving their fans on-field thrills to go with #SaveTheCrew protests.

There’s a terrific chance for Columbus to pull ahead in leg one as it did against New York City FC, as the Reds will be without suspended stars Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore.

The Crew are led by the wizardry of Justin Meram (Iraq) and the finishing of Norwegian striker Ola Kamara. Then there’s rejuvenated and/or ageless playmaker Federico Higuain, and young USMNT backstop Zack Steffen.

Managers Greg Vanney and Gregg Berhalter are both capable of sublime tactics, and how Tuesday looks may go beyond the missing stars if Vanney is able to trump his Columbus counterpart.

Seattle Sounders vs. Houston Dynamo
First leg — 9:30 p.m. ET Tuesday in Texas
Second leg — 10:30 p.m. ET Nov. 29 in Washington

Clint Dempsey’s defiant comeback tour rolls on. One year after he was relegated to street clothes champagne celebrator in Canada, Dempsey is rollicking through MLS with his heart surgery a poignant but distant memory.

Dempsey scored twice in the conference semifinal defeat of Vancouver, the lone two goals, and has been no worse for the wear despite an injury to key attack partner Jordan Morris. On the season, he’s nabbed 14 goals and 4 assists.

“Deuce” joins Nicolas Lodeiro and Cristian Roldan as key pieces in trying to deconstruct Wilmer Cabrera’s Dynamo, who are trying to add a second title to the city’s trophy haul following a difficult summer for Houston.

Houston has its band together for this critical time of year, with no Gold Cup or CONCACAF World Cup qualifying to deprive them of Alberth Elis or Erick Torres. Can it knock off the No. 2 seed after handing top-seeded Portland its demise?