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World Cup spy: Honduras accuses Aussies of clumsy espionage

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SYDNEY (AP) Jorge Luis Pinto has accused Australia of a clumsy espionage attempt after a drone hovered over his Honduras squad’s practice session ahead of the return leg of their World Cup playoff.

The first leg last Friday ended in a 0-0 draw, leaving a spot at next year’s World Cup at stake Wednesday at Sydney’s Olympic stadium.

The Australian squad flew directly home from Honduras on a charter flight brimming with rehabilitation equipment for the players and landed on Sunday, a day ahead of Pinto’s squad.

The Hondurans were upset when officials saw a drone flying over their practice session late Monday, and posted a video of the drone on the team’s Twitter account with the message: “Selection of Honduras upset by Australian espionage with a Drone.”

Pinto didn’t back away from the claims at his match-eve news conference, saying he didn’t accept the explanation from stadium staff that it was an accidental case of a father and his child playing with the drone in a nearby park.

“Let’s not be innocent. It’s espionage in football,” Pinto said. “Just like VAR (Video Assistant Referee) has made it into football, drones have made their way into espionage.

“It just takes some of the merit away from the fair play and the sporting event that will be held tomorrow.”

Pinto said it was “embarrassing for such an advanced country” and added that the Socceroos had checked “every bathroom, every box at the stadiums where they trained” in San Pedro Sula to ensure there was no spying on their own sessions.

Football Federation Australia said it had nothing to do with the drone.

Australia coach Ange Postecoglou said he wasn’t getting distracted by the claims, and was focused only on getting the Socceroos to a fourth consecutive World Cup.

“There was a fair bit of drama around the first game, but we stayed well out of it,” Postecoglou said. “Ultimately, it’s all pretty irrelevant when the game kicks off tomorrow night. It’s all about those 90 minutes and anything said beforehand is meaningless.”

It has been a long campaign for both squads. Australia went through the last round of Asian qualifying with just one loss from 10 games, yet still missed out on one of the four direct entries to Russia on goals difference.

A lack of finish in front of the goals was evident again in the Asian playoff against Syria, which the Australians won courtesy of Tim Cahill’s two goals in Sydney to reach the intercontinental playoff.

Honduras finished fourth in qualifying in North and Central America and the Caribbean, securing a spot in the playoff at the expense of the U.S.

Australia failed to convert two clear chances to score in San Pedro Sula last Friday, but Postecoglou said he was content to come back to Australia on level terms. Cahill, who didn’t play in the first game because of an ankle injury, is fit and ready for selection, and Mark Milligan and Matt Leckie are available again after being suspended for the series opener.

Postecoglou has foreshadowed changes for the return match and so has Pinto, saying there could be up to three changes for Honduras with veteran skipper Maynor Figueroa and pacy winger Alberth Elis coming back.

Pinto said Figueroa would add some field presence and composure to his team, and Elis could create space out wide.

The Honduras coach didn’t elaborate too much further on what tactics he’d use, but had a tongue-in-cheek poke at Postecoglou on the theme of surveillance.

“Without a doubt we’ll be employing long balls tomorrow,” he said. “So if the head coach of Australia is watching this press conference he has some insight into the game!”

The Sydney news conference was broadcast on TV in Honduras, and Pinto was asked if he had a message for the team’s fans.

“Just as we faced situations against Mexico and El Salvador, which were tough, we always made it through,” he said. “Tomorrow is not going to be the exception. We’ll make it through.”

Mourinho delighted to have “engine of the team” Pogba back

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One takeaway which has been made 100 percent clear — in case the first four games of the season weren’t enough — is this: Manchester United are, in every way imaginable, a different team when Paul Pogba is on the field.

[ RECAP: Pogba’s star (re)turn lifts United past Newcastle ]

Pogba returned to action on Saturday and paced Man United to a 4-1 thumping of Newcastle United. After the game, United manager Jose Mourinho wasted little time in pointing the finger as Pogba, acknowledging he’s the player that makes the Red Devils tick — quotes from the Express:

“Paul Pogba is different class. Paul and Nemanja Matic grew up together at the start of the season and are the engine of the team. It was in Paul’s hands, how many minutes to play until he began to feel fatigued. It was a great performance from him.

“I know that strikers depend on goals for confidence and happiness. I was really happy to see him score his goal.

“We go match to match — we can only play Manchester City twice in a season. In those games we will try to take points — outside of those fixtures we are not in control.”

As for another returning superstar, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, we shouldn’t gloss over the fact that he returned from a torn ACL in just seven months. The original period for recovery was pegged at nine months.

“I am pleased for the three three points, the quality of our performance after Newcastle’s goal, that mentality to react without panic and in a positive way, and obviously the return of injured players is always nice, especially in Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s case. His was such a dramatic injury. To see him back is a great emotion”

The gap between United and City is currently eight points, but 26 games remain. There is time, but Mourinho’s men can afford to drop very few points the rest of the way.

Man United 4-1 Newcastle: Pogba’s star (re)turn

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  • Red Devils fall behind early
  • Pogba’s return: goal, assist
  • Gayle’s goal, Yedlin’s assist
  • Martial, Smalling flip the score before HT

It was like Paul Pogba hadn’t been away for even one day of the last 10 weeks, as the French superstar returned from a hamstring injury and inspire Manchester United’s 4-1 victory over Newcastle United at Old Trafford on Sunday.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Zlatan Ibrahimovic also returned from the torn ACL he suffered in April, making his first appearance in seven months — two months ahead of schedule — as a 77th-minute substitute.

Saturday’s rout wasn’t always straightforward and easy for Man United, as the final score might deceive.

Newcastle struck first in an action-packed, goal-filled first half. U.S. national team right back DeAndre Yedlin tallied his first assist of the PL season, as he sped to the end line and cut a low cross toward the penalty spot, finding the late-arriving Dwight Gayle for a gentle finish

The lead lasted 23 minutes, until Pogba marked his return to action with a delightful assist for Anthony Martial‘s equalizer. Pogba danced past Isaac Hayden, raced toward the end line and floated a delicate ball to the back post, where his compatriot headed home.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Right on the stroke of halftime, United went 2-1 up after Chris Smalling headed home Ashley Young‘s lofted cross to the back post. Smalling remained forward after a short corner Young acres of space to pick his head up and hit the right ball.

United required only nine minutes to double their lead, and it was Pogba, once again proving his worth to the side, who got the goal. Romelu Lukaku floated a cross to Marcus Rashford at the back post, and Rashford’s cushioned header dropped the ball into no-man’s land. Pogba reacted quickest. 3-1. Pogba’s back, and so is United’s swagger.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Seconds after Pogba was subbed — without incident — Lukaku pounced on Florian Lejeune‘s botched clearance inside his own penalty area and slammed a left-footed shot past Robert Elliot.

As exciting as the performance and result were, it was only enough to keep United on pace — eight points back — with Premier League leaders Manchester City, who also won on Saturday.

Jurgen Klopp hails “perfect day” for Liverpool

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Jurgen Klopp has had far from an ideal week but his Liverpool side ruthlessly dispatched Southampton at Anfield to end it on a high note.

[ MORE: Liverpool batter Saints ]

Klopp was sent to hospital earlier this week when he felt unwell but the German coach was given a big boost as Mohamed Salah scored twice in the first half, which included a stunning opener, and Philippe Coutinho finished Saints off in the second half as the Reds eased to victory and stayed in touch with the chasing pack behind runaway leaders Manchester City.

Speaking to the BBC after the game, Klopp was happy with what he saw from his side after he was fit enough to be on the bench on Saturday.

“Difficult game, Southampton are a really good football side. It was an open game, we had more chances before we scored. We need to be patient in a lively way,” Klopp said. “The first goal, wow, I have nothing to do with the goal and the second was a fantastic pass and Mo Salah makes great runs. We could have scored more often but it was a perfect day for us.”

Klopp, 50, sees his side just three points off second place after 12 games of the Premier League season, while his side remain firm favorites to qualify for the UEFA Champions League Round of 16.

So far, so good.

Yes, Man City will take some catching (and a collapse of their own) but Liverpool’s aim should be to secure a second-straight top four finish and go from there.

With Sadio Mane, Salah, Coutinho and Roberto Firmino in the form they showed on Saturday, plus a fifth clean sheet in six PL games this season at Anfield, the defensive woes Klopp’s team have faced away from home this season aren’t troubling them at home.

Next up is Chelsea at home for Liverpool, which will be a supreme test of their newfound defensive solidity at home. Their results against title contenders this season have been up and down with a draw against Manchester United, hammerings at Tottenham and Man City and a thrashing of Arsenal at home.

Liverpool’s clash against top four rivals Chelsea is followed by five winnable games before they travel to Arsenal on Dec. 22.

Between now and then we will see if Liverpool’s season will amount to more than just a top four challenge. Saturday’s shellacking of a lackluster Southampton may have been “perfect” but a much tougher test awaits next week against a rejuvenated Chelsea side who have Alvaro Morata and Eden Hazard purring in attack

Can Liverpool’s oft-fragile defense cope? We are about to find out.

Burnley’s Barnes: “Can we finish the season now?”

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Ashley Barnes broke his season duck in classy fashion, scoring and adding an assist as Burnley stayed in the thick of the race for Europe with a 2-0 win over Swansea City at Turf Moor on Saturday.

[ RECAP: Burnley 2-0 Swans ]

The win shouldn’t be a surprise, as Burnley is humming in style. The Clarets entered the day with a win at Chelsea and draws at Liverpool and Spurs, so why would a visit from Swansea lead to anything than three points.

It’s dream world, really.

From the BBC:

“We’re on a fantastic run. We’re working hard every day and today we were different class.

“Can we finish the season now? No, I’m kidding. there’s still a long way to go and we need to pick up as many points as possible.”

Every win makes more and more believers of the Burnley Football Club. Perhaps more important to the Clarets, each win makes it less likely that Sean Dyche will leave the club for a better gig (Everton), at least right now.