Paul Pogba

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PL Sunday preview: Can Man United, Liverpool keep pace?

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Highly unlikely to overcome 14- and 21-point deficits in the title race, respectively, Manchester United and Liverpool — along with the rest of the Premier League’s top-six — are merely in a race for second. West Bromwich Albion and Bournemouth — their opponents on Sunday, respectively — fear relegation.

[ PL ROUNDUP: Man City untouchable; Chelsea, Arsenal win narrowly ]

West Brom vs. Manchester United — 9:15 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Try telling Jose Mourinho, the only man in the PL still refusing to concede the title to Manchester City, that the title race is over. The performances have often been ugly and ground out until the final whistle — especially in the absence of Paul Pogba, who’ll once again be unavailable through suspension — but Mourinho’s men have won five of their last six (the only defeat coming last weekend, to Man City) as they head into Sunday’s annual trip to the Hawthorns, where they’ll face 19th-place West Brom. The Baggies haven’t won in their last 15 PL outings (eight draws), a woeful run which dates back to the second week of the 2017-18 season.

While United have been nearly impenetrable defensively (11 goals conceded in 17 games), a pair of costly errors — each committed by star striker Romelu Lukaku — cost the Red Devils dearly against City, as did their recurring inability (against the PL’s top teams) to control the game through possession and create scoring chances with consistency. The same struggles reared their ugly heads in a 1-0 victory over Bournemouth on Wednesday.

As poor as the results have been over the course of four months, West Brom can hang their hat on a decent defensive record — just 22 goals conceded in 17 games, which puts them squarely in the middle of the table. If Alan Pardew‘s side sets out to defend for 90 minutes, the Baggies might just get something out of Sunday’s clash. Pardew was quite pleased by the improvements he saw during Wednesday’s 0-0 draw with Liverpool, and he’s hoping for a repeat performance against United.

“We kept them very quiet and created on transition better moments, in the limited number that we had, than we did at Swansea,” he said. “That’s an improvement, but still an area to work on. We had some really strong performances — and if you get four or five ‘eights’ in your team that normally constitutes points.”

INJURIES: West Brom — OUT: Nacer Chadli (hip), Matt Phillips (hamstring), Craig Dawson (knee), James Morrison (achilles); RETURNING: Gareth Barry (thigh)| Man United — OUT: Paul Pogba (suspension), Eric Bailly (ankle), Marouane Fellaini (knee), Michael Carrick (heart)


Bournemouth vs. Liverpool — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Every time Liverpool take a step or two forward, they take a step or two right back to where they began. Case in point: back-to-back wins over Stoke City and Brighton & Hove Albion, by a combined score of 8-1, which briefly vaulted them ahead of Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur in the race for the top-four; followed by back-to-back draws against bottom-half sides Everton and West Brom.

With that side, Jurgen Klopp‘s side is unbeaten in its last eight league games and boasts one of the league’s most potent attacking records (34 goals scored in 17 games — third-most behind the two Manchester clubs).

Cherries boss Eddie Howe was encouraged by his side’s performances in that narrow loss to United, and the 40-year-old can sense that better days are on the near horizon.

“We’re disappointed because we’ve been beaten, but I’m really pleased with the performance,” he said. “I thought we were very good today and were very disciplined out of possession. We were also very good with the ball and created numerous chances. We really did establish ourselves in the game very early and there were some really good individual performances today. The team functioned very well.”

INJURIES: Bournemouth — OUT: Tyrone Mings (back), Brad Smith (hip), Adam Federici (knee) | Liverpool — OUT: Alberto Moreno (ankle), Adam Lallana (fitness), Joel Matip (thigh), Nathaniel Clyne (back), Emre Can (suspensions); QUESTIONABLE: Daniel Sturridge (hamstring)

Mourinho: Eric Bailly out; United may look to buy in January

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Jose Mourinho has revealed that Eric Bailly requires ankle surgery and will be out for up to three months for Manchester United.

The Ivorian center back has been missing since early November after suffering the injury on international duty.

Bailly, 23, hasn’t recovered as quickly as United would have liked and his injury is more serious than originally thought.

“He [Bailly] goes to surgery, the decision is made,” Mourinho told MUTV. “I don’t say (he’s out) for the rest of the season but it’s for the next two or three months.”

United have plenty of options at center back with Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo all around, but all three have been out with injuries during this season. That said, Bailly is by far United’s most consistent and reliable defender and having him out until February or March is a big blow for Mourinho.

As for the January transfer market, Mourinho may not go and buy a replacement for Bailly but he did hint at perhaps doing some business in the January even though he isn’t the biggest fan of the mid-season window.

“Not a big defender of the January market,” Mourinho said. “There are players and situations you have the chance to do and you shouldn’t lose them. I don’t like January market just to buy.”

United have been linked with a January move for Antoine Griezmann but Mourinho refused to comment on speculation linking the French international with a move to Old Trafford.

Griezmann looked set to move in the summer with United, Barcelona and PSG all interested in signing the striker, but with his manager at Atleti, Diego Simeone, saying that he will now be able to leave Atletico if the right offer comes in, surely United will be looking at bolstering their attack if the right deal can be done.

Buying in January, especially for a player of Griezmann’s caliber, usually comes at a premium but what if he has a great summer with France at the 2018 World Cup? His transfer value would surely rocket then.

With the Red Devils 11 points behind Premier League leaders Manchester City, they will need something special to claw back points in the second half off the campaign. Griezmann’s arrival would make everyone sit up and take notice, even if United don’t exactly need to boost their attacking talent.

Simply put: if a player of Griezmann’s caliber becomes available, as it appears is the case, you need to pull out all of the stops to try and sign him.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan‘s future at United appears to be over, so maybe if they can move the Armenian playmaker on and free up some cash to bring in Griezmann (a good friend of Paul Pogba) then a deal can be done. With Atleti not qualifying for the latter stages of the UEFA Champions League, it appears the Spanish club are willing to let Griezmann leave after he handled the summer of transfer speculation admirably and remained with the La Liga outfit during their transfer embargo and move to a new stadium.

Mourinho slams “lucky” City as Guardiola digs deeper under his skin

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MANCHESTER — The defining moment of the soccer renaissance in Manchester arrived on Sunday.

[ MORE: Three things we learned

Manchester City won the battle, 2-1, and they’re clearly winning the war with Pep Guardiola not only leading a swashbuckling side towards the Premier League title at a canter, but also exposing the weaknesses of Manchester United and Jose Mourinho in the process.

Throughout the game City’s fans jeered long balls up to Romelu Lukaku by United as Mourinho’s side badly missed the dynamism of Paul Pogba in midfield.

“Park the bus, park the bus Man United! Playing football the Mourinho way!” was the chant from the City fans. They echoed the thoughts of those watching on across the globe.

Mourinho and Guardiola’s soccer ideologies are from different planets and City are currently in another world when it comes to their form in the Premier League following a record-breaking 14-straight win. Guardiola is running away with the head-to-head battle.

As expected, his old sparring partner didn’t take the defeat well as United lost for the first time at home in 24 Premier League games (their last defeat came against City last September) and also fell 11 points behind the Premier League leaders in the process.

Speaking to media outlets after the game, Mourinho admitted that United’s title hopes are “probably” over before hitting out at referee Michael Oliver about not awarding a penalty kick in the second half when Ander Herrera went down in the box and was booked for simulation.

“Manchester City are a very good team and they are protected by the luck, and the gods of football are behind them,” Mourinho told the BBC.

It was a case of clear deflection from Mourinho as Herrera clearly went down easily and was looking for the penalty kick.

After lambasting Man City for being lucky, Mourinho went into more depth in his press conference after the game about the decision to not award his team a penalty.

“It was like last season. Exactly the same,” Mourinho said. “We can speak about anything you want. You can bring any football theory, you can bring the stats, the possession, everything you want, but like last season it was a huge penalty in a crucial moment of the game. But I also say I feel sorry for Michael Oliver because I think he had a very good game with the intention to have the perfect work, which he almost did.”

Guardiola was having none of it.

City dominated possession, had 14 shots and were in total control of the game throughout. What did Guardiola make about Mourinho calling City “lucky” in their derby win?

“Last season was the same. We won because we were better in all departments. We were better,” Guardiola said. “I don’t know the plan for my opponent but we came here to try to win the game. We did it the same at Stamford Bridge and here again, on two big stages. At half time I said to my players, I am not going to talk about tactics, just the substitution. But we didn’t make any comments about the tactics… We came here like we did in Stamford Bridge and all the games since I came here, to try to win. I’m so happy. The people say in England you can’t play in that way in England, but we can play in that way as well.”

He’s right.

After his first full season in the Premier League in 2016-17, many scoffed at Guardiola, the soccer idealist who had been proved wrong with his supposed arrogance that he could blow the English top-flight apart playing champagne soccer. Yes, he’s been handed a huge amount of cash to overhaul his squad, but Mourinho hasn’t been short of funds at United either.

Both have improved their respective clubs dramatically over the past 18 months but Guardiola seems to be building something more sustainable and impressive than Mourinho.

As for this encounter, where United hung in there but never truly looked like beating City, did Mourinho feel his rivals dominated the 175th Manchester derby?

“It depends on how you analyze it,” Mourinho said. “It depends on what we want to let them do. But I think when you see Man City play you expect Man City to score great goals, not to score two disgraceful goals. Those are the last goals you expect to concede against a top quality team. Two very bad goals with one corner and one free kick with rebounds. Incredibly unlucky from the defending perspective. Yes, they had much more of the ball. Yes, they had that apparent control of the game, but the biggest save of the game is the double save by their goalkeeper and the biggest decision of the game is an unlucky decision of Michael [Oliver].”

Can United claw back the deficit?

“It is a significant distance,” Mourinho said. “I don’t know. I know we can win next Wednesday. Win, or lose, or draw. I know that we can win next Wednesday and we are going to work and fight for it, match after match,  and every match we are going to give everything with our qualities, with our problems, that is what we do all the time.”

The only problem is, Sunday proved that Manchester City’s quality is far superior to Manchester United in all departments and there’s little Mourinho can do about it.

Just like in his Real Madrid days, he is being dominated by Guardiola who is, once again, managing a bitter rival.

The Special One is seething as he looks on enviously across Manchester with Guardiola’s brand of play revered across the globe while his is ridiculed by opposition fans and neutrals alike.

Nothing will get under Mourinho’s skin more.

Guardiola glowing, says he’s proving doubters wrong

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Neither rain, nor snow, nor Manchester United have been able to stop Manchester City this season.

Less than a year and a half into his Premier League tenure, Pep Guardiola feels ready to preen a little bit.

And why not? Manchester City dispatched its regional rivals away on Sunday, topping Manchester United 2-1 at Old Trafford. Control of the match was theirs, and style, too.

[ MORE: Recap | 3 things | 3 stars ]

Now Guardiola’s men have an 11-point lead on the Premier League table not even midway into the season. They’ve won a Premier League record 14-straight matches and show no signs of stopping.

“The personality to play here is what I want. We can play this way in England. People said we couldn’t play the way we did in Barcelona in England but it is possible and we did it.

“I knew that last season. Always I believed we could do it. Everyone can play how they want, that’s why football is so beautiful. I’m happy to go to Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford and to beat them in this way.”

The match was entertaining, though deprived of one of its best players in suspended Paul Pogba.

Alas, Guardiola was left to answer Jose Mourinho’s postmatch comments that City players hit the deck too easily, and that United deserved a penalty.

Not. having. it (again).

“Last season it was the same – we won here and it was the referee. Today as well. Yesterday he spoke about the referee. We are an honest team. We had 75% ball possession, which means we wanted to play. We came here and did that.”

Sure did. Now will they be able to add more trophies to what’s likely to be a Premier League title season.

Three Stars of the 175th Manchester Derby

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The Manchester Derby did not disappoint in terms of tackles, entertainment, and drama, with the match in the balance for 90 minutes despite Manchester City’s advantage in play.

While Paul Pogba‘s absence was notable on one side, there was no shortage of stars at Old Trafford on Sunday (and a few duds as well, Messrs Delph and Lukaku).

[ MORE: Recap | 3 things from Old Trafford ]

My boss from across the ocean often uses the phrase “Top Man” when proffering a compliment, so we’ll call today’s winners our three Top Men.

Three Top Men

  1. David Silva — There’s a good chance that he’ll go down as one of the most overlooked superstars of his era. He’s always been third- or fourth-fiddle at Man City and even Spain, but was a menace and not just in attack. Silva’s a competitor of a very high order, and his goal was richly-deserved.
  2. Ederson — He wasn’t called upon often, but his dynamite double stop to preserve the win was worth its weight in gold. The stop on Romelu Lukaku was a positional stop, but the follow-up on Juan Mata was all skill and reaction.
  3. Ander Herrera — Forgive the man his late dive — he was desperate. Herrera is an exceptionally strong disruptor who reads opposition possession as well as the top dogs in the game. He had to be especially good with Paul Pogba out, and he was United’s best player.

Who’d we miss? De Bruyne? Rashford?