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Two goals from Jozy Altidore completes U.S.’s perfect send-off series

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After seven months without an international goal, Jozy Altidore has some momentum to take into Brazil. With goals in the 32nd and 68th minutes, the previously slumping United States international scored his first goals since World Cup qualifying in October, helping the U.S. complete a perfect send-off series with a 2-1 win over Nigeria in Jacksonville, Fla.

Altidore opened the scoring just after the half-hour mark with a tap-in after a pass from Fabian Johnson left him with an empty goal. In the second half, a right-footed blast from 14 yards out saw Altidore beat Nigeria’s Vincent Enyeama inside his right post, giving the Sunderland striker his 23rd international goal.

A 86th minute penalty conceded by Matt Besler allowed Victor Moses to score from the spot, preventing Tim Howard from keeping a clean sheet in his 100th international appearance. Over the full 90, however, the U.S. put in the most impressive performance of its send-off series, giving the team reason to belief it’s still improving ahead of its June 16th World Cup opener against Ghana.

Tweaking his lineup from last weekend’s win over Turkey, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann brought Kyle Beckerman and Alejandro Bedoya into midfield at the expense of Brad Davis and Graham Zusi. Combined with a switch in Clint Dempsey’s positioning, the U.S. was prepared to commit and extra man to the battle in the midfield. Altidore’s early work also portrayed a team committed to complicating Nigeria’s life in the middle third.

The moves left the visitors controlling possession but only generating corner kicks, with the U.S. playing on the counter. In the 32nd minute, the U.S.’s approach paid off when a quick movement down the right flank allowed Bedoya to find an on-rushing Johnson at the edge of the six-yard box. With a square ball between the goalkeeper and defense, the right back found Altidore running between Nigeria’s central defenders. The pass allowed Altidore to finish into an empty net – his first goal of 2014.

Through halftime, the Nigerians continued to control the ball, but most of the Super Eagles’ possession was mostly passive. The team didn’t register a shot on Howard until a speculative chance from Ogenyi Onazi in the 41st minute. By the 44th minute, however, Nigeria had finally come into the match, nearly scoring an equalizer when Efe Ambrose was left unmarked on a corner. While the U.S. made it to intermission with its one-goal lead, Nigeria reached the locker room with some positives.

Soon after returning to the field, Nigeria resumed its control of the ball, but the pressure the team generated at the end of the first half evaporated. Unchanged in its approach, the United States continued funneling play wide before frustrating its opponents, leaving the Super Eagles’ hopes resting on occasional corner kicks and dead ball chances. Through the hour-mark, Nigeria had generated only one good chance on goal.

In the 65th minute, after the U.S. began seeing more of the ball, a strong read from Enyeama was needed to keep the Nigerians in the match. Fed toward the edge of the penalty area by Bradley, Dempsey’s cut back on a Nigerian defender gave him an open look on goal. At the moment Dempsey shed his opponent, however, Enyeama came off his line, cutting down all of the U.S. captain’s angles.

source: AP
United States goalkeeper Tim Howard (1) deflects a ball away from the goal as he collides with Nigeria’s Peter Odemwingie (8). (Photo credit: AP)

Three minutes later, the pressure the U.S. had exerted since the 60th minute paid off, giving Altidore a two-goal performance to carry into Brazil. In transition, a diagonal from Bradley left Altidore one-on-one against Ambrose. Allowed to cut back onto his right foot, Altidore beat Enyeama with a shot inside the near post, giving the U.S. a 2-0 lead.

Frustrated, perhaps fatigued, the passive control Nigeria had experienced to wane. The U.S. was winning possession more often, proving more dangerous on the counter when they did. In the 79th minute, a pass rolled behind the defense by Altidore saw Dempsey again denied by Enyeama, who smothered a through ball just inside the penalty box.

Moments later, Howard had to sprint off his own line to scoop up a Nigeria ball. Then, in the 84th minute, a lapse in defense allowed Emmanuel Emenike to get behind Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez, forcing Howard to absorb a shot to keep his clean sheet. Though the U.S. proved more dangerous in the match’s final half-hour, the same late uncertainties that emerged against Turkey were present in Jacksonville.

Ultimately, just as they did against the Turks in Harrison, N.J., the U.S. gave up a late penalty kick that halved the score. Sending his fellow Premier League player the wrong way, Victor Moses beat Howard inside his left post, making it 2-1 after Matt Besler conceded the chance from the spot.

Controlling most of the game’s final minutes, the U.S. eventually completed its first perfect send-off series, scoring six times while conceding twice in its three games before Brazil. Now, however, the games start to count. In nine days, the U.S. kicks off its 2014 World Cup in Brazil, where a Ghanaian team that’s eliminated the U.S. from the last two finals will prove a greater challenge.

Lineups

United States: Tim Howard; Fabian Johnson, Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler, DaMarcus Beasley (Timothy Chandler 75′); Kyle Beckerman (Mix Diskerud 72′), Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley, Alejandro Bedoya (Graham Zusi 60′); Clint Dempsey (Chris Wondolowski 88′), Jozy Altidore (Omar Gonzalez 80′)

Goals: Altidore 32′, 68′

Nigeria: Vincent Enyeama; Juwon Oshaniwa, Joseph Yobo, Godfrey Oboabona, Efe Ambrose; Victor Moses, Ogenyi Onazi, John Obi-Mikel (Gabriel Reuben 46′), Ramon Azeez (Michael Uchebo 74′), Peter Odemwingie (Michel Babatunde 46′); Shola Ameobi (Emmanuel Emenike 65′)

Goals: Moses 86′

VIDEO: Arsene Wenger apologizes for being sent off

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While his team was fighting for second position in the Premier League table, Arsene Wenger was watching from the depths of the Emirates.

Incensed at the (correct) decision to award Burnley a penalty two minutes into stoppage time after Arsenal had controlled much of the game, Wenger lashed out at fourth official Anthony Taylor, causing referee Jon Moss to send Wenger off the pitch.

The Frenchman was forced to watch Alexis Sanchez score a penalty of his own, giving Arsenal a stunning 2-1 win over the Clarets. After the match, Wenger was pleased with the victory, but apologized for his actions, which included shoving Taylor slightly on three separate occasions.

“I saw it [the winning penalty] on television, I at least saw what happened,” Wenger said. “I didn’t see a penalty from outside, but I should have kept my control and I apologize for that. [I should have] not said a word. I should have shut up.”

It’s possible that Wenger sees punishment from the FA for his actions, as it isn’t the first time he’s clashed with referees this season.

The Frenchman was complimentary of Burnley’s defense, with Arsenal controlling much of the game but failing to score more than one goal through regulation.

“My team was well organized, which makes the game simple but efficient. It’s kind of frustrating games that you get here, and you have to deal with it tactically, and we did it well. We won over there in the last second with a little bit of a dodgy goal, and we won today again just in the last second again, so they’re a very strong team.”

Wenger was non-committal when asked about Granit Xhaka‘s dismissal, saying it was on the other side of the field so he did not get a good look at the decision.

Xhaka’s latest red makes him the most sent-off player in Europe

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 22:  Granit Xhaka (R) of Arsenal protests to referee Jonathan Moss after shown a red card during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Burnley at the Emirates Stadium on January 22, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Granit Xhaka was a marked man before he came to England. With four dismissals over the last two club seasons, Arsenal fans were aware they were bringing in a talented passer and midfield destroyer, but also a man who had trouble staying on the pitch.

That has manifested itself in the Premier League, and has been maybe even exacerbated.

With his second straight red card of the season, Xhaka’s disciplinary issues are a hindrance to the Gunners and leaves Arsene Wenger with a big decision to make – to continue Xhaka’s selection in the matchday squad when he returns from suspension, or leave him on the sidelines as to not risk again falling down to 10 men.

Over the last 2-1/2 calendar years dating back to the start of the 2014/15 Bundesliga season when he was with Borussia Monchengladbach, Xhaka has been sent off six times in league play, once in the Europa League, and another for his international team during 2018 World Cup qualifying this past summer. The league record alone is more than any other player in the top 5 European leagues.

While obviously the sheer numbers are a major issue, the true problem is in the eye test. Xhaka isn’t learning from his mistakes. No, his dismissal against Burnley wasn’t the most malicious of challenges, but it was a textbook straight red card. The Swiss international passed the ball straight to Steven Defour, and long after the Burnley midfielder unloaded the ball to a teammate, Xhaka went lunging in with both feet showing studs, forcing referee Jon Moss to show him the showers after a quick conference with the assistant referee who was in perfect position to make the call.

If the 24-year-old wishes to find his way back to the field in Arsenal colors, he needs to start learning from his actions, or he will end up on the bench, either through suspension or selection. It nearly cost Arsenal a chance at second place against Burnley, with the Clarets energized by their man advantage. He has four domestic matches to think about what he’s done.

Chelsea 2-0 Hull City: Costa return sends Chelsea eight points clear

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 22:  Diego Costa (R) of Chelsea celebrates scoring the opening goal with his team mates during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Hull City at Stamford Bridge on January 22, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
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Chelsea didn’t miss a beat with Diego Costa out, but they sure are glad to have him back.

The Spaniard bagged a goal in lengthy first-half stoppage time and Chelsea eased its way to all three points to take advantage of a host of slip-ups near the top of the table to work an eight-point gap at the summit. A late goal from Gary Cahill secured the points as the Blues were on their way.

The Blues had the opening chance just 11 seconds into the game as they boomed a long ball forward, one that Diego Costa chested down and volleyed just inches wide left.

Past the 12 minute mark, there was a lengthy injury delay after Ryan Mason and Gary Cahill had a very nasty clash of heads. Cahill came out relatively unscathed and was able to stay on but Mason was down for several minutes, requiring full medical attention as he received oxygen and was carefully placed on a backboard before being stretchered off.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

The game seemed to fall asleep after the delay, with Mason replaced by David Meyler. Hull had a spell of possession, including a corner, before Chelsea got back on the ball. The Blues nearly got a break when a shot from Marcos Alonso took a massive deflection and nearly looped into the top corner, but Eldin Jakupovic was there to tip it behind.

That moment began a huge spell of pressure for the Blues. David Luiz rose high to meet a Victor Moses cross but couldn’t get the contact, and then Pedro went to ground for a penalty shout but was denied. Hull’s defensive shape was fantastic in the first half, and while Chelsea held the bulk of possession, they had little to show for it in front of net. In significant first half added time they came close again, with Alonso on the left wing cut one across the face of goal, but it was just out of reach for a sliding N'Golo Kante and into Jakupovic’s arms.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Before the break, Chelsea would break through. Victor Moses cut a ball across the penalty area that somehow made it all the way to Diego Costa without a touch, and the Brazilian put himself back in the spotlight with a powerful finish.

The second half was a spirited one, but didn’t produce much in front of net. The television commentators called the game “plucky” which accurately described the action. After 70 minutes, Chelsea manager Antonio Conte brought off Eden Hazard for Cesc Fabregas. Hull City had a healthy amount of attacking intent, but couldn’t get by the Chelsea back three.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

It wasn’t enough for the Tigers, as Chelsea put the game away with 10 minutes to go. Substitute Cesc Fabregas delivered a free-kick into the box, and Cahill snuck in around the back, getting free and heading in from point-blank range. Fabregas earned his sixth assist of the Premier League season, tied for most on Chelsea despite playing just 521 minutes. Costa nearly had a third four minutes later, but was stuffed by Jakupovic from a tight angle.

The three points pushed Chelsea eight points clear at the top, with Liverpool, Tottenham, and Manchester City dropping points. Hull City’s loss sees them remain in the relegation zone, in 19th on 16 points, three from safety.

Real Madrid loses Modric and Marcelo to injuries in Malaga win

MADRID, SPAIN - JANUARY 21:  Marcelo of Real Madrid CF comes off substituted during the La Liga match between Real Madrid CF and Malaga CF at the Bernabeu on January 21, 2017 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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The 40-game unbeaten run seems like a distant memory.

Real Madrid had lost two straight matches before a 2-1 La Liga win over Malaga on Saturday, but despite the three points, they still did lose in a way.

Los Blancos lost both Marcelo and Luka Modric to injury in the match, and both could potentially miss up to a month of time.

Modric has been in and out of the squad this season due to injuries, and during his other lengthy spell on the sidelines, he was replaced adequately by 22-year-old Mateo Kovacic, and he was the man to replace Modric against Malaga with 12 minutes remaining. Reports say the Croatian suffered an adductor injury which can be quite painful and could keep him off the field for a number of weeks.

Marcelo, meanwhile, has been a staple in the Madrid lineup, appearing in the last 11 league matches and starting all but two of those. Marcelo was brought off just 25 minutes into the Malaga win reportedly with a hamstring problem, replaced by Isco. The likely long-term replacement for the 28-year-old Brazilian would be Nacho Fernandez, who has seen time this season on both defensive flanks.

The injuries puts not just the immediate La Liga and Copa del Rey futures of the two in jeopardy, but also could affect their availability for the start of the Champions League knockout stage which begins on February 15th against Napoli.