Late Diskerud, Johannsson goals deliver 2-0 win for U.S. over Azerbaijan

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Seventy-one places separate the United States from European minnows Azerbaijan in FIFA’s rankings, but after 74 minutes in San Francisco, there was nothing between the two nations on the soccer field. With late goals from Mikkel Diskerud and Aron Johannsson, however, the World Cup-bound U.S. were able to take a 2-0 win from their 85th-ranked guests, giving the team a slow but positive start to its Brazil 2014 buildup.

The U.S. created two good chances in the first half, but after two crosses for impromptu starter Chris Wondolowski were headed at Azerbaijan goalkeeper Karman Agayev, the teams returned to the locker room scoreless. In the second half, off a restart by Brad Davis, a Michael Bradley shot was blocked in front of goal by Agayev, leaving an opportunistic Diskerud to give the U.S. its late relief. Six minutes later, a corner kick allowed Johannsson to provide the home side’s insurance.

The U.S. continues its send-off series on Sunday against Turkey in Harrison, N.J. On June 7, the U.S. will face Nigeria in its final match before leaving for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

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Providing few surprises in his starting lineup, U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann selected an initial XI that could also start June 16 against Ghana. Clint Dempsey, the team’s captain, was called on with Jozy Altidore up top, while a midfield built around Michael Bradley also featured Jermaine Jones, Graham Zusi, and Alejandro Bedoya. At the back, Geoff Cameron started in central defense beside Matt Besler, with fullbacks Fabian Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley completing the four in front of Tim Howard.

The day’s first surprise arrived shortly before kickoff when Dempsey was scratched from that starting XI. In his place, Wondolowski, playing in front of a largely home crowd, was chosen to partner Jozy Altidore up top, with tightness in the captain’s quadriceps forcing Dempsey from the starting lineup.

The first half’s best chances dropped for the man who was supposed to start on the bench, with Agayev called on twice to keep Wondolowski headers from giving the States an opening goal. In the fifth minute, a restart from the right by Zusi found an unmarked Wondolowski just outside the side-yard box, but the San Jose captain’s diving header went found Karman’s left knee after bouncing in front of goal. Just over 10 minutes later, Alejandro Bedoya beat his man on the right before finding Wondolowski eight yards out, with a strong hand from the Azerbaijan keeper putting the shot out for a corner.

With only one speculative chance testing Howard over the first 45 minutes, the teams reached halftime scoreless, prompting Klinsmann to make three of his six substitutions: Omar Gonzalez, believed to be fighting for a spot in the starting lineup, came in for Geoff Cameron; Timothy Chandler replaced DaMarcus Beasley at left back; while Zusi gave way for Davis.

Though a near-penalty in the 50th minute hinted Klinsmann’s changes might break through his team’s conservative opponent, the first half eventually began mirroring the first, just without the Wondolowski chances. Play moving from flank-to-flank failed to generate chances before the U.S. was dispossessed and briefly pushed back into their own half. After each inevitable Azerbaijan giveaway, the process would start anew.

By the 75th minute, the match looked destined to end in a draw, but converting on some penalty area chaos, the U.S. finally went in front. On a ball that dropped in the box after an Azerbaijani defender’s failed clearance, Michael Bradley forced Agayev to leave a saved shot in front of goal. There Diskerud, on the pitch for only four minutes, finishing into the right of goal to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead.

Six minutes later, Azerbaijan’s weakness on set pieces was finally exploited. Off a Davis corner from the right of goal, Johannsson uncoiled onto a shot inside the near post, giving the U.S. its insurance.

The 2-0 final also gave the U.S. a result it would have expected, but going 74 minutes without a goal, the team played like a group taking the first, tentative steps of a much longer journey. Klinsmann will look for improvement on June 1.

Lineups

United States: Tim Howard; Fabian Johnson (DeAndre Yedlin 62′), Geoff Cameron (Omar Gonzalez 46′), Matt Besler, DaMarcus Beasley (Timothy Chandler 46′); Graham Zusi (Brad Davis 46′), Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley, Alejandro Bedoya (Mix Diskerud 71′); Chris Wondolowski (Aron Johannsson 62′), Jozy Altidore

Goals: Diskerud 75′, Johannsson 81′

Azerbaijan: Agayev, Abisov (Hüseynov 46′), Sukurov (Qırtımov 46′), Ramaldanov, Budak, Qarayev, Yunuszada, Abatsiyev (Medvedev 71′), Cavadov (Nazarov 60′), Aliyev, Dadasov (Fardjad-Azad 66′)

Manchester derby “the game of the season”

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Whatever way you slice it up, Thursday’s Manchester derby is huge.

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Manchester City host Manchester United (Watch, 2:45 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) at the Etihad Stadium with Pep Guardiola‘s side just one point ahead of United in the Premier League table.

City currently occupy fourth spot and the final UEFA Champions League qualification berth but are coming off the back of a damaging FA Cup semifinal defeat to Arsenal after extra time.

United and Jose Mourinho haven’t lost in 23 Premier League games, the longest current unbeaten streak across Europe’s top five leagues, and are in the UEFA Europa League semifinals as their banged up squad have stood tall in the final months of the campaign.

Speaking ahead of the derby, one of United’s stars this season believes everything comes down to this one game.

“It is going to be the game of the season,” Ander Herrera said. “We are one point behind them. If we win we have the chance to finish in the top four, if they win it is going to be very difficult. It is the game of the season.

“Make or break? Probably. Both teams are in a good moment so if one of us wins the game we are not going to lose a lot of games, or make mistakes after that. Us or them. It is going to be key. I don’t know the ‘winner takes all’ expression but it is going to be a massive game. We are in a very good moment, a very good run and we respect them but we are doing a lot of good things and we have to show it on Thursday.”

Herrera’s comments say it all.

It is fair to say that both Manchester clubs have flattered to deceive for much of this season with Guardiola’s tactics yet to flourish in England and Mourinho’s rebuild hampered by injuries and a lack of goals at crucial moments.

On Thursday there will be a raucous atmosphere at the Etihad as both teams are aware of what is at stake.

More of the pressure may well be on City who now have just a place in the top four to focus on and with many previously giving United no chance of finishing in the top four, a win at City would take them above their “noisy neighbors” and into the UCL spots.

Former Czech Republic defender Rajtoral kills himself

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PRAGUE (AP) Former Czech Republic defender Frantisek Rajtoral, who won the domestic league title four times before joining Turkish club Gaziantepspor, died on Sunday. He was 31.

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The Czech football federation said in a statement that Rajtoral had “committed suicide in Turkey.”

His agent Pavel Zika confirmed the player’s death, describing it as a “huge tragedy.”

Gaziantepspor announced Rajtoral’s death in a brief statement on its website.

Rajtoral played 14 international matches for the Czech Republic.

In the top Czech league, he won four titles with Viktoria Plzen and played in the group stage of the Champions League twice for the club. He moved to Hannover in the Bundesliga in 2014 for half of the season, on loan.

He left Viktoria Plzen last year to move to Turkey.

Bellerin wants to represent Spain U21s despite Wenger’s wishes

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Arsene Wenger has made it clear about Hector Bellerin representing Spain this summer but the Arsenal defender is prepared to go against his manager’s wishes if he is selected.

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The 22-year-old has said he hopes to play for Spain’s Under-21 side this summer during the 2017 European U-21 Championship but Wenger has been weary of Bellerin’s injury status and wants his fullback to maintain a clean bill of health throughout the offseason.

“I really want to play,” Bellerin told IBTimes. “Representing Spain is very important. If [Albert] Celades gives me the chance I’ll be there.

“Those are opinions of the managers. I have to keep working. The truth is that I had a difficult injury but I think that I am at 100% now and I’ll try to prove it when I get the chance.”

Bellerin signed a six-and-a-half year deal with the Gunners in November, where he has resided since coming up in the club’s academy. He has made 102 appearances for Wenger’s team in that span over all competitions.

Roma boosts bid for 2nd in Serie A by beating Pescara 4-1

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PESCARA, Italy (AP) Roma boosted its bid for second place in Serie A and automatic entry into the Champions League with a 4-1 win at Pescara, which was mathematically relegated on Monday.

[ MORE: Newcastle joins Brighton in promotion to Premier League ]

Roma moved four points clear of third-placed Napoli, which drew against Sassuolo 2-2 on Sunday. Third place in Serie A receives a Champions League playoff.

Pescara remained 15 points behind Empoli. There are only five matches left and Empoli has the better head-to-head record, which is the deciding factor if two teams finish level on points.

There were 48 goals in total in the 33rd round, matching the record set in October 1992.

Roma took control shortly before halftime, with Kevin Strootman breaking the deadlock after Stephan El Shaarawy unselfishly rolled the ball across the area.

Radja Nainggolan, who earlier hit the bar, doubled Roma’s lead two minutes later.

Mohamed Salah extended Roma’s advantage three minutes after the break and the winger doubled his tally on the hour following a swift counterattack.

Ahmad Benali got a consolation for Pescara and a Cristiano Biraghi free kick also hit the post for the home side.