Offshore drilling, England: at Manchester United 2, Liverpool 1

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For 55 minutes, the imperious version of Manchester United gave one of their most controlling performances of the season, but a defensive breakdown near the hour mark sent England’s leaders into a shell, the tentative giants left to bleed out a what could have been a decisive 2-1 win over Liverpool.

Ultimately, there was little chance the Red Devils would lose. Sublime buildup ending with a one-touch goal from Robin van Persie put the hosts up early, with a perfectly executed second half set piece giving United their winning goal. It was only then that a moment of complacency made the match a contest, though after Daniel Sturridge put home the rebound of a Steven Gerrard shot, Manchester United were never seriously threatened. Second half improvement from an impotent start still cast the Reds as incapable of matching their rivals.

It’s tempting to see this performance as emblematic of a flawed but ultimately successful United team, but the one-goal win understates their quality. While the final third of the match provided fuel for their doubters, the first two-thirds showed why Alex Ferguson’s side is temporarily 10 points clear at the top of the league.

No, it wasn’t a perfect showing, but it was worthy of a title-winner, even if the scoreline tries to say otherwise.

Man of the Match: Robin van Persie was absent for long periods of the match. In the second half he was a non-factor, and when the more constant performances of Michael Carrick and Shinji Kagawa helped pin Liverpool in their defensive third, van Persie was given very little space to operate. You could argue Carrick, particularly with some strong defensive play to open the match, should get this honor.

But goals matter. Execution in the final third really matters, and nobody is better at that right now than Robin van Persie. His touch on Patrice Evra’s first half cross (after a nice, subtle move away from Daniel Agger) left little chance for Pepe Reina to stop the opener. A beautifully swung-in restart just after half time was the key part in United’s winner.

When Daniel Sturridge went well over the crossbar from 10 yards out late in the match, we were reminded of van Persie’s value. He would have buried that chance and equalized, just as he took advantage of a small, 19th-minute window to give United their lead.

It’s a sport of moments, and Robin van Persie’s mastered them.

Threesome of knowledge

1. Show of respect from United – We’ve become accustomed to the inconsistent, mercurial version of Manchester United, but with the exception of their loss to Tottenham earlier this year, the Red Devils consistently played well against the Premier League’s top teams. They come out witha  clear plan and execute it to perfection, whether that plan being their ball-hogging ways against Arsenal or the intent to counter they showed at Chelsea.

In that way, the preparation and focus United showed against Liverpool was a compliment. While that may patronized a talented Reds’ squad, Liverpool’s performances against the Premier League’s elite would justify Ferguson taking a less intent approach. United’ boss could have rotated players or put out a team which, like many other matches, didn’t play with the intensity we saw on Sunday.

But the rivalry won out. Ferguson’s respect for Liverpool had him put out a full and prepared side. And it paid off.

2. United able to transcend their gap; Liverpool can’t – The key part of this match was the first 55 minutes. Nemanja Vidic’s second half header changed team’s approach, the game’s second goal making Liverpool chasers while United parried.

Until that point, despite the fact the teams were playing different formations (United’s 4-4-2 versus Liverpool’s 4-3-3), each side was tasked with the same concern: How effectively could they move the ball from their deep distributor (Carrick, Gerrard) into attack given the lack of a presence high in midfield.

For United, the formation left them with a hole in front of Carrick and Tom Cleverley. For Liverpool, an ineffective Joe Allen left the team looking for other ways to find Luis Suárez.

Thanks to Carrick, United ended up finding their answers first. The holder’s range of passing and connections with Shinji Kagawa (left) and Ashley Young (right) allowed him to manage the game. Setting up just inside Liverpool’s half when United established possession, Carrick served as the outlet the Red Devils needed, a role most evident when he helped recycle the ball ahead of the first goal.

For Liverpool, Gerrard was given all the time in the world to have an influence on this match but couldn’t. It wasn’t until he lumbered forward in the 57th minute that his impact was felt. By then, his team was down two goals.

Mostly ineffective with a flash of influence, Gerrard’s game served as a snapshot of where his career’s evolved.

3. Ferdinand and Vidic: Together again – It’s been nearly three years since Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic were simultaneously healthy, and on Sunday, that only lasted 80 minutes. But before Vidic came off for Chris Smalling after landing heavily on his right knee, the long-time United partnership gave Red Devils’ fans reason to think the team’s defensive problems could be solved. Their strong marking and confident handling of set pieces harkened back to when United’s defense was the cornerstone of a Champions League contender.

Even the goal couldn’t be put on the duo, with the midfield breaking down to allow a long shot ahead of Rafael falling asleep on the rebound.

(MORE: Scholes says United-Liverpool remains EPL’s top rivalry)

Packaged for takeaway

  • Whenever Danny Welbeck gets the start ahead of Javier Hernandez, you wonder why the young England international is ever out of the team. His enviable combination of athleticism, speed, and technical ability makes him seem like an obvious choice. But then you remember Hernandez’s goal poaching and realize not even he’s assured a spot when Wayne Rooney’s healthy. The attacking talent on this United team is absurd.
  • Wayne Rooney didn’t make it back for today’s match. The United star has been out for three weeks with a knee injury. The original timeline for his recovery had him back close to this derby; however, there was no hint he was close to making today’s 18.
  • The match took some time to settle down, with both teams searching for ways to transcend their gaps in midfield. United didn’t hold their first sustained spell of possession until the 18th minute (eventually scoring). Liverpool first set up in United’s end in the 28th minute, a span that ended with Joe Allen playing a ball out for a goal kick.
  • Liverpool needs a better midfield, which makes you wonder why they couldn’t make room for somebody like Nuri Sahin. The Turkey international moved back to Borussia Dortmund this week.
  • After the opener, United looked like they had a formula for a second and set about targeting the channel to the right of Martin Skrtel. Near chances for van Persie and Welbeck didn’t come off, but in the second half, a long pass from Evra over Skrtel led to a foul when Welbeck had to be pulled down. The resulting free kick led to United’s winning goal.
  • Ashley Young was hurt near the end of the first half and had to come off. Antonio Valencia was brought on at halftime.
  • Liverpool switched to a 4-4-2 to start the second half, Brendan Rodgers bringing on Daniel Sturridge for Lucas Leiva. Though the combination seemed ready to provide the Reds with a lifeline, Liverpool ended the match with only three shots on goal.

Bolt unlikely to agree to terms with Australian club

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Usain Bolt’s search for a professional contract may go on a bit longer.

According to the Central Coast Mariners, the Australian club he’s been training with, they have extended Bolt a contract, but conceded a deal is “unlikely” “without the financial contribution of an external third-party,”

Reports across Europe state that Bolt is looking for a $3 million contract from any team he signs with, and the Mariners appear unable to meet those demands. “We are looking at ways to do this as the club does not have the luxury to be able to do this in the Hyundai A-League,” the club said in a statement. According to a report by the Guardian, the Australian football governing body has contributed $100,000 from its marketing fund for the contract, but would add no more than that.

Bolt scored twice in a friendly last week, and he’s been training with the club for the past few weeks, but the club announced that while talks are ongoing, Bolt will not travel with the team or attend training “to ensure that there is no distraction to the Hyundai A-League squad in preparing for this weekend’s match versus Melbourne City.”

The A-League side said in the statement that while Bolt is improving, the former sprinter requires further training to become a viable professional player. “Usain has made great progression during his time on the Central Coast and we feel that he will improve further with more individual intensive training and competitive game time.”

However, the club’s head coach wasn’t so complimentary. “Do you think he’ll get in our front three? We’ve got a very good front third,” Mike Mulvey said. Central Coast sports former Leeds United, Fulham, and Aston Villa striker Ross McCormack up front, alongside 26-year-old Australian international Tommy Oar and 24-year-old Connor Pain who has one cap for the international side.

Bolt doesn’t exactly have a ton of time to improve his game, already at 32 years of age and with a full Olympic-medal-winning professional sprinting career on his legs.

Man United hosts Juventus to headline Champions League Tuesday

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The stars align at Old Trafford on Tuesday as Manchester United hosts Juventus at the forefront of the Champions League slate.

Cristiano Ronaldo returns to face his old club and his old manager, while Paul Pogba also takes on his former team as the top spot in Group H is on the line. Ronaldo is back in Champions League action since September 19 when he was controversially sent off, earning a one-match suspension he served in a 3-0 win over Young Boys.

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho told the players after throwing away a late lead against Chelsea to “use the anger to motivate ourselves to play a big match.” They’ll take on a Juventus team that’s slightly banged up, missing Mario Mandzukic, Emre Can and Sami Khedira all out injured. Manchester United also has its own issues, with Alexis Sanchez unavailable with Mourinho confirming he’s “not fit” although no other injury information was given.

Elsewhere on Tuesday, Manchester City travels east to take on Ukranian club Shakhtar Donetsk. Group F is crowded through two matches, with City in second a point behind Olympique Lyon at the top. Kevin De Bruyne is in the squad after returning from injury over the weekend, coming off the bench for 32 minutes of Premier League play against Burnley. They’ll look to attack a Shakhtar defense that choked away a 2-0 lead against Lyon last time out. City has Kyle Walker available as well, announced as part of the matchday squad.

Bayern Munich visits AEK Athens having returned to winning ways over the weekend with a 3-1 victory over Wolfsburg. It’s a welcome sight for Niko Kovac, who was under fire for a terrible stretch of games, but now the Bavarians have a positive result to take with them on the road. Robert Lewandowski and James Rodriguez were both on the scoresheet, with the Polish international grabbing a brace.

Ajax takes on Benfica in Amsterdam as the Dutch side looks to extend its lead at the top of Group E. They’re tied with Bayern on points, but hold a slightly superior goal differential. Since falling to PSV Eindhoven in Eredivisie play, they have blown out Fortuna Sittard, AZ Alkmaar, and Heerenveen 11-0 over their last three games. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar already has 10 goals this season across all competitions, and former Southampton attacker Dusan Tadic is right behind him with 9.

Real Madrid has its best chance to turn around the poor run of play as they host Czech club Viktoria Plzen. Madrid has not won since September 22, a run of five matches that consists of four defeats. The club broke a scoreless streak of over 450 minutes last time out in a 2-1 loss to Levante, but the pressure has only increased on head coach Julen Lopetegui.

Other matches

Young Boys vs Valencia
AS Roma vs CSKA Moscow
Hoffenheim vs Lyon

Puel, Schmeichel fume at referee after Leicester loss to Arsenal

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While the world looked on at the performance by Mesut Ozil in awe, Leicester City manager Claude Puel and Foxes goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel were left stewing after the match at a first-half decision which they believed changed the game completely.

Had the referee awarded a penalty for a Rob Holding handball in the first half with Leicester City up 1-0, the game would likely have turned out very differently. Holding, already on a yellow card, would have likely been sent off and Leicester City would have a chance from the spot to go up 2-0.

“I think [the first half was] our best half since the beginning of the season,” Puel said after the match. “We deserved to score more goals and make the difference in the first half. I didn’t understand why the referee didn’t whistle for the penalty, because in this moment it was a penalty, it was a second yellow card and so a sending off for the Arsenal player. This situation can change the finality of the game.”

Puel said that once the call was not made, and Arsenal was able to equalize before the break, Leicester City’s level of play dropped enough for the Gunners to pounce.

“I regret a little our beginning of the second half. We lost a lot of balls and we gave them the ball too easily to put us under pressure, but we have had the chances to score and to be leading in the game with the header from Ndidi. A lot of regret in this game because we showed a lot of quality and we were not lucky with the refereeing decision.”

Goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel was in agreement with his manager about the key first-half decision. “We got no help from the official,” Schmeichel said. “I’ve never seen a clearer penalty. It’s tough to take because we were so good in the first half but in the second we’ve got to do a lot better than we did.”

At halftime, the replay showed the ball clearly hitting Holding’s forearm while above his head. However, the NBC studio crew argued that the penalty was not called because Holding’s arm was hit into the ball by the Leicester City attacker who attempted a header, and that although his arm was above his head, it was not in an unnatural position due to the natural human instinct to balance the body while jumping into the air.

Emery still searching for improvement after Arsenal win

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Arsenal won its 10th match in a row across all competitions with a 3-1 victory over Leicester City, with Mesut Ozil playing the starring role.

Still, Unai Emery isn’t fully pleased with the performance.

[ WATCH: Ozil sets up 2 beautiful goals in Arsenal win over Leicester City ]

Arsenal fell behind 1-0 thanks to a Hector Bellerin own-goal, and the Gunners boss is concerned about his assessment of the 90 minute performance. “Different halves, every match is difficult,” Emery said after the match. “First half we didn’t control the match with possession and positioning.”

Ben Chillwell got behind Bellerin and sent in a cross to the middle of the box, to which goalkeeper Bernd Leno reacted, but the cross clipped off Bellerin’s foot and past the wrong-footed goalkeeper. Arsenal responded with a 3-goal wave, as Ozil scored the first and set the next two up in brilliant fashion.

“We are happy because we are progressing. We need to play with organization but also with heart. We are beginning to play with heart. When you continue to improve your demands are very high. We need to control the matches more than we are doing now.”

The win pushed the Gunners to fourth in the Premier League table, above rivals Tottenham on goal differential. Emery said in order to have success long-term and maintain their Champions League positioning, the players need to be flexible.

“First half we didn’t play well but then we played with quality and heart. This feeling together is very good. We need the number 10 position sometimes with Mesut Ozil and sometimes with Aaron Ramsey. We can’t play with both sometimes. Last match was away and we played it with two strikers. Today Mesut was very good but I believe in every player and different positions for the players.”