Premier League 2014-15 preview: Manchester United

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Where to begin? Manchester United looks to rebound off its most disappointing season in decades with a new manager in Dutch genius Louis van Gaal. The man who watched over a third place Netherlands finish at the World Cup has quite the resume and reputation, having led Ajax, Barcelona, AZ Alkmaar and Bayern Munich.

How much difference can one man make? We may find out, as van Gaal will be cooking with a lot of the same ingredients as his predecessor David Moyes. The Red Devils continue to be linked with a bevy of big names, but so far the major acquisitions have been Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera. That means LVG will be focusing on Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie… just like the sacked Moyes.

[RELATED: Full PL season preview]

Transfers In: Luke Shaw (Southampton), Ander Herrera (Bilbao)

Transfers Out: Ryan Giggs, Alexander Buttner (Dynamo Moscow), Patrice Evra (Juventus), Federico Macheda (Cardiff City), Nemanja Vidic (Inter Milan), Rio Ferdinand (Queens Park Rangers), Bebe (Benfica)

Full PL schedule | Watch Manchester United live via Live Extra | BPL on NBC schedule |

Last season: United’s disappointment was a relative one, as the Red Devils finished just five points out of Europe, scored the fifth-most goals in the Premier League and allowed the fifth-fewest. Where the club really failed was allowing Old Trafford to be far less than a fortress, as West Brom, Everton and Newcastle were teams to snap historic winless skids in the building. In fact, United posted seven of its 12 losses at home. That’s no good.

But remember, the team also advanced deep into the UEFA Champions League without a cup-tied Mata. Bayern Munich needed the second leg at home to pick up a win. Could LVG have made a difference simply in selection in preparation? Absolutely.

source: Getty ImagesStar player: Wayne Rooney

Hard to choose between Rooney and van Persie, but England’s bulldog led the Red Devils with 17 goals last season. RVP’s strike rate was slightly better, but Rooney makes more of a difference at both ends of the park (something that infuriates some fans). Rooney also requires the freedom to freelance, and that could become a problem with van Gaal if the wins aren’t coming and the freelancing has left gaps in the formation.

Coaches’ Corner: Louis van Gaal

As mentioned earlier, we’ll learn a lot about how much of a difference a manager can make from van Gaal’s first year in charge. The fact remains that players are far more important than a boss, but LVG won all five of his friendlies on U.S. soil and will have the full backing of van Persie as he looks to rebuild the United brand.

PST predicts: Manchester United returns to battle for a Top Four spot and needs January additions to push itself into the championship discussion. The late moves don’t come in time to push them above Chelsea or Manchester City, leaving the club to duke it out with Arsenal and Liverpool for 3rd and 4th place. Do they make it? Not as currently constructed. United finish fifth and LVG uses the summer of 2015 to build his title contender.

La Liga: Real Madrid win wild one, now just 17 points behind Barca

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ MORE: Barcelona ties club-record 31-game unbeaten run ]

Real Betis 3-5 Real Madrid

So long as they manage to hold off Sevilla for fourth place (Champions League qualification), Real Madrid will quickly move on from their disastrous 2017-18 season, spend a half-billion dollars in the summer and pretend like the 12 preceding months never even happened.

For a brief period on Saturday — nearly 30 minutes including the halftime intermission — that plan appeared fatally flawed and at risk. After going 1-0 up away to Real Betis courtesy of Marco Asensio’s 11th-minute opener, Los Blancos found themselves in big trouble after Aissa Mandi leveled things up in the 33rd minute, followed by a Nacho own goal four minutes later.

Five minutes into the second half, Sergio Ramos drew the visitors level, followed by another from Asensio in the 59th minute. Cristiano Ronaldo made it 4-2 six minutes later, at which point Madrid appeared home free.

Sergio Leon pulled Betis to within one in the 85th minute, but Karim Benzema restored the two-goal lead in the 91st, less than two minutes after replacing Ronaldo.

Atletico Madrid 2-0 Athletic Bilbao

With Barcelona still unbeaten on the La Liga season, the title is all but decided with more than three months still to play. That hasn’t stopped Atleti, though, as Diego Simeone’s side, which has lost just once in the league, continues to pursue Lionel Messi and Co. Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Athletic Bilbao moved Los Rojiblancos back to within seven points of Barca with a dozen games, and one head-to-head matchup, still to play.

Kevin Gameiro scored what turned out to be the winner in the 67th minute, followed not long after by Diego Costa‘s second league goal of the season (fourth in all competitions) to make it 2-0.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Real Sociedad 3-0 Levante
Espanyol 1-1 Villarreal

VAR provider apologizes for wrong image of offside Man Utd goal

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Whether or not you’re in favor of the use of video-assistant refereeing the world over — and, more specifically, English soccer — one thing on which we can all agree has become abundantly clear: VAR’s maiden voyage has been a chaotic, poorly conducted mess.

[ MORE: Jose Mourinho demands VAR calls be “perfect” ]

Any change to the game’s century-old rules and practices — especially of VAR’s monumental proportions — must be implemented and executed without a hitch. Any issues that had arisen prior to this weekend were minor in significance and import, but that all changed on Saturday, when Manchester United’s Juan Mata had a goal wiped away by VAR (WATCH HERE).

Mata appeared to have timed his run perfectly and been onside before slotting home to put Man United 2-0 ahead of Huddersfield Town in the FA Cup fifth round. After consulting the off-site video assistant, the goal was taken off the board. While the slightest bit of Mata’s knee appeared to have been in an offside position, the issue lies in the fact that the images provided to television broadcasters, by VAR provider Hawkeye, displayed a clearly crooked line of demarcation.

[ MORE: Man Utd draw Brighton in FA Cup QF; Chelsea get Leicester ]

Hawkeye issued a statement on Sunday, acknowledging and apologizing for the faulty image provided to broadcasters, but insisted that a correct version of the image was seen by the refereed:

“A technical error led to an incorrect graphic being provided by Hawkeye to BT Sport on Saturday. To confirm, the VAR saw the correct image with the correct lines to make the decision. This was a case of the wrong image being provided to the broadcaster and we apologize.”

In the end, by the most stringent interpretation of the law, VAR got the call correct. But that won’t matter one iota in the court of public opinion, as one mistake as simple as a crooked line gives the impression that the entire operation is haphazard and not fit for practice.

Juventus suffers blow with apparent Higuain injury

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The back-and-forth battle at the top of Serie A continued on Sunday as Juventus topped Torino at the Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino, however, the visitors suffered a big injury scare in the process.

[ MORE: Man United draws Brighton, Chelsea gets Leicester in FA Cup ]

Alex Sandro‘s winner came in the 33rd minute, but the focus of the match will leave all eyes on Gonzalo Higuain — who exited after just a quarter of an hour.

The Argentine international was looking to latch onto a through ball from Miralem Pjanic in the fifth minute, before jumping over an oncoming Salvatore Sirigu — goalkeeper for Torino.

Higuain appeared to land awkwardly on his ankle, though, and while he attempted to continue on in the match he was substituted off for Federico Bernardeschi 10 minutes later.

The extent of Higuain’s injury is unknown to this point, however, it comes at a very bad time for Juventus.

The Italian giants are heavily involved in the Serie A title race, holding a two-point lead over Napoli at the top of the table.

Additionally, Juve has important fixtures coming up in both the Coppa Italia and Champions League against Atalanta and Tottenham, respectively. Higuain and Co. are level at 2-2 with Spurs heading into their UCL second leg in early March, and Juve will surely need the striker’s presence to have a shot at advancing to the quarterfinals.

Rochdale 2-2 Tottenham: Davies stuns Spurs late

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A valiant effort from a League One side has rewarded the minnows with a replay set to be played at Wembley Stadium.

Tottenham Hotspur looked on its way towards the FA Cup sixth round on Sunday, but a late finish by Steven Davies gave Rochdale a 2-2 draw with the Premier League club at the Spotland Stadium.

[ MORE: Willian stars as Chelsea routs Hull in FA Cup ]

Harry Kane — who scored his 34th goal on the season in all competitions — converted from the penalty spot in the 88th minute, however, Davies had the final say deep into stoppage time to send the two sides towards a replay.

Ian Henderson’s finish in the 45th minute gave Rochdale a gift at the conclusion of the first stanza, after the hosts capitalized on a Spurs giveaway near midfield.

Meanwhile, Tottenham managed to level the match at 1-1 on the hour mark when Lucas Moura calmly slotted his close-range shot past goalkeeper Josh Lillis after a timely through ball from Moussa Sissoko picked out the former PSG man.

The visitors began pressing on in the second half, with Mauricio Pochettino‘s side having trailed at the halftime break.

The two sides will now meet on either Feb. 27 or 28 in the reverse fixture to decide which team advances. The winner will either meet Sheffield Wednesday or Swansea City in the quarterfinals.