MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - JANUARY 10:  Marouane Fellaini of Manchester United celebrates with Jose Mourinho, Manager of Manchester United after scoring his sides second goal during the EFL Cup Semi-Final First Leg match between Manchester United and Hull City at Old Trafford on January 10, 2017 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Often derided, Fellaini finally feels some love at United

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MANCHESTER, England (AP) There was only one place Marouane Fellaini was heading after scoring the goal that put Manchester United in a dominant position in the League Cup semifinals.

And it wasn’t to the United fans who have jeered him in recent weeks.

Instead, Fellaini zeroed in on the man who has shown faith in him during the tough times. Jose Mourinho was pumping his fists in the technical area when he was met with the full force of a charging Fellaini and his trademark afro.

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The United manager tumbled backward before putting his arms around the midfielder as they embraced. Minutes later, Fellaini’s name was being sung around Old Trafford.

“He changed the dynamic and the empathy with the fans,” Mourinho said.

Fellaini’s first goal of the season was important, not just because it sealed a 2-0 win for United against Hull on Tuesday in the first leg of the semifinals. The bear-hug celebration showed the togetherness and improving bond between Mourinho and his players, a factor that cannot have helped but aid United during its current run of nine straight victories in all competitions.

You have to go back nearly four years – before United’s miserable years under David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal – to a similar display of emotion, when Robin Van Persie ran along the touchline and embraced Alex Ferguson after scoring a match-clinching penalty against Stoke in April 2013 as United closed in on the Premier League title.

There was more of a personal element to Fellaini’s reaction.

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A month ago, the Belgium international was booed by sections of Old Trafford – not for the first time – as he warmed up as a substitute late in the second half of United’s win over Tottenham. That was chiefly because a week earlier, he had come on as a late sub against Everton and conceded a penalty that was scored to deny United victory.

Yet there’s also the feeling that United fans just haven’t warmed to a player who is associated, rightly or wrongly, with the most difficult period in the club’s recent history.

Fellaini was one of Moyes’ first signings in the immediate post-Ferguson era and has never appeared a natural fit for United, whose success since the early 1990s was based on fluid, attacking and entertaining football. Getting the best out of Fellaini – a tall midfielder with a strong aerial presence – requires a more direct and pragmatic style, which is why he thrived at former club Everton.

He was nevertheless valued highly by Moyes and Van Gaal, and was therefore a regular starter under them. Under Mourinho, Fellaini has had less game time, especially since November when United has generally gone with a midfield of Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba.

Fellaini is now regarded as a Plan B, a player to throw on in the final minutes to cause damage with his height and physicality. His crucial goal against Hull came via that route, with Matteo Darmian floating over a left-wing cross that Fellaini met with a looping header over the goalkeeper.

“I’m here to support the players, especially the players in a difficult situation,” Mourinho said of Fellaini. “But he has a very strong mentality, he coped well with the situation, he was not afraid the next match after Everton to go to the pitch again.

“He is always supported by myself,” Mourinho added. “He knows he is a very important player for me.”

Mourinho likes to have physically imposing players in his team. He had them at Chelsea and immediately after joining United, he signed Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Eric Bailly – all players with a presence.

Given Fellaini’s characteristics, the midfielder could have a vital role to play for United in the second half of the season.

Bremen beats Wolfsburg to leave Bundesliga relegation zone

BELO HORIZONTE, BRAZIL - AUGUST 10:  Serge Gnabry of Germany reacts during the Men's First Round Football Group C match between Germany and Fiji at Mineirao Stadium on August 10, 2016 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.  (Photo by Pedro Vilela/Getty Images)
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WOLFSBURG, Germany (AP) — Midfielder Serge Gnabry scored twice as Werder Bremen moved away from the Bundesliga’s relegation zone with a 2-1 win at fellow struggler Wolfsburg on Friday.

Bremen and Wolfsburg are level on points and two above Hamburger SV, which is in 18th place and in the relegation zone.

It was a fifth defeat in six games for Wolfsburg coach Valerien Ismael, who won the league and cup double as a player with Bremen in 2004.

Gnabry fired the visitors ahead with a deflected shot in the 10th minute and made it 2-0 eight minutes later, controlling the ball with his chest before prodding home on the volley.

Striker Borja Mayoral, who is on loan from Real Madrid, scored with his chest following a Wolfsburg corner as Wolfsburg hit back moments later.

Midfielder Daniel Didavi struck the post with a free kick as Wolfsburg kept pushing for an equalizer.

Mancini reportedly not interested in Leicester City, De Boer says no

GENOA, ITALY - APRIL 20:  Head Coach of FC Internazionale Roberto Mancini looks during the Serie A match between Genoa CFC and FC Internazionale Milano at Stadio Luigi Ferraris on April 20, 2016 in Genoa, Italy.  (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
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Two top candidates to replace Claudio Ranieri at Leicester City have reportedly turned down any interest in the job.

Roberto Mancini, the heavy favorite out of the gates after Ranieri’s dismissal, tweeted his support for Ranieri after the news broke. “I am sorry for my friend Ranieri,” Mancini said. “He will be in the history of LCFC, in the hearts of Leicester fans and all football lovers.”

However, the fellow Italian has rebuffed Leicester’s informal advances towards his services. According to Sky Sports, Leicester sent “intermediaries” to “sound out” Mancini’s feelings towards the position, but came back empty-handed. The report states Mancini was turned off to the club after a short and unsuccessful spell there as a player in 2001.

That leaves a host of other names who have been linked to the job, with no clear favorite. One person mentioned was Dutch legend Frank de Boer, who is unemployed after an unusually short stint in charge of Inter Milan. However, De Boer’s agent went public to say he was not ever in the running.

“There is zero possibility that Frank could go to Leicester,” agent Guido Albers told Italian publication Tuttomercatoweb. “I too heard these rumors, but that’s all they are – rumors. I can affirm without doubt that Frank will not become the Leicester City manager. This will 100 per cent not happen.”

Albers explained that De Boer is only interested in joining a club in the offseason, preferring to enter a project with a blank slate rather than joining midseason with particular goals already clearly laid out. With Leicester, it seems De Boer is turned off by the notion of a relegation battle.

Win over Las Palmas again has La Real on edge of CL spot

GETAFE, SPAIN - DECEMBER 11:  Xavi Prieto of Real Sociedad in action during the La Liga match between Getafe CF and Real Sociedad de Futbol at Coliseum Alfonso Perez stadium on December 11, 2015 in Getafe, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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All it took was one mistake. Real Sociedad’s Xabi Prieto capitalized, and has La Real once again on the verge of next year’s Champions League.

La Real finished 7th in 2013/14, and 9th in 2015/16, and this year, they’re closer than ever. Preito’s goal on the mistake by Las Palmas goalkeeper Javi Varas gave Real Sociedad the 1-0 road win and has them just a point off a Champions League place.

[ MORE: Antonio Conte pulling from experience to keep Chelsea on top ]

That could be even closer next week, as fourth-placed Atletico Madrid has to welcome Barcelona to the Calderon tomorrow, leaving the door open for La Real to make another move next weekend.

The goal down the stretch is not just to win the games they should, but make the teams above them work. La Real has won seven of their last ten matches, but the three losses came to Real Madrid, Villareal, and Sevilla, all teams fighting at the top of the table. They still have chances down the stretch, with matches against Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla, and Eibar coming up, with the latter on the docket next weekend.

Conte pulling from prior experience as title race pushes on

WOLVERHAMPTON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 18: Antonio Conte, Manager of Chelsea looks on during The Emirates FA Cup Fifth Round match between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Chelsea at Molineux on February 18, 2017 in Wolverhampton, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Antonio Conte has recalled some painful memories to push himself and his players forward despite their commanding lead at the top of the Premier League table.

Chelsea sits eight points clear of Manchester City, and has the chance to go even further in front with many of the top teams off this weekend, but that won’t give the Italian any better sleep at night.

In the 1999/2000 season, Conte was nearing the end of his 13-year Juventus tenure. He’d won three league titles already, plus two league cup trophies and a Champions League title with the Serie A giants. With a comfortable nine point lead after 26 matches, the club became complacent. They would lose four of their final eight matches, collapsing on the final day in the pouring rain, allowing Lazio to come roaring back to win the title.

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“I was captain of the team,” Conte said. “I remember after this game I must go to the European Championships with the national team. I didn’t sleep for six days because it was a shock for me to lose the title.”

Clearly, that still haunts him. “I have experienced this,” Conte continued. “When I continue to repeat that there are 13 games, there are 39 points… there is a long time before we can say we won the title. We must be focused, we must go step by step.”

The Blues host Swansea City at Stamford Bridge on Saturday before a trip to West Ham next weekend. If anyone believes the Chelsea players are complacent holding such a significant lead with 13 matches to go, it’s clear that’s not nearly the case. Anything can happen in three months.