Offshore drilling, England: at Manchester United 2, Everton 0

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Avoiding the type of undo drama that usually defined their matches, Manchester United gave one of their most impressive performances of the season, a controlled effort that saw the Premier League leaders post a 2-0 win over sixth place Everton.

With a strong start followed by their trademark passive governance, United was never in danger of dropping points. Ryan Giggs’ 13th minute goal gave the Red Devils the lead, and although Everton controlled possession for most of the next half-hour, United doubled their lead through Robin van Persie in first half stoppage time.

Massaging play throughout the second half, the closest United came to conceding was a mid-period chance for substitute Nikica Jelavic. It was one of the few instances that stressed goalkeeper David de Gea. For much of the match, he enjoyed the scenery behind a suddenly solidifying Red Devil defense.

For most of the season, the defense has been a weakness, though nothing that’s prevented United from establishing a 12-point lead in England. With the domestic race firmly under control, the Red Devils can shift focus to Champions League, where their renewed defense will face Real Madrid Wednesday at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Man of the Match: With apologies to Nemanja Vidic (strong defensively) and Rafael (who contributed to both goals), when you play the key part of both goals of a 2-0 win, it’s going to be difficult to take Man of the Match honors away from you. On the opener, Robin van Persie won his one-on-one with John Heitinga to set up Giggs’ goal. On the second, he timed his run correctly and beat a poorly executed Everton trap, running onto a Rafael ball and rounding Tim Howard to score United’s insurance.

He could have had more. In the 10th minute, van Persie failed to take advantage of an exposed goal, shooting into the right side netting. In the 81st minute, van Persie had both posts to choose from at 12 yards out before pulling his shot wide right. On another day, the normally clinical striker would have had at least one more goal.

But even with misgivings, van Persie’s contributions to the game’s only goals make him the Man of the Match.

Threesome of knowledge: What we learned

Nemanja Vidic’s returning to his former self – You can’t blame the Manchester United captain for taking a little time to round into form. Making his 11th appearance after missing most of the 2011-12 campaign, Vidic looked close to his former elite self. He dominated his physical battle with Everton striker Victor Anichebe, handled the responsibility of marking Marouane Fellaini on set pieces, and made some astute first half reads during the half-hour stretch where Everton dominated possession. If Vidic and Rio Ferdinand continue to round into form, United’s biggest problem is solved.

Marouane Fellaini needs, gets special attention – Phil Jones hasn’t been given many starts in midfield this season. Most of that comes down to injuries, but Michael Carrick’s performances, Anderson’s health, and a full season of Paul Scholes have also played into it. With Fellaini set to occupy the space in front of United’s defense, Alex Ferguson brought Jones into midfield and tasked him with marking the big Belgian.

The results were mixed, though the scoreboard speaks for itself. Fellaini’s life was made more difficult, but he still saw a lot of the ball. Jones’ assignment allowed him to be pulled out of position, leaving more space in front of Vidic and Jonny Evans. Thanks to the awareness of Tom Cleverley, Ryan Giggs, and Wayne Rooney (who covered the space between midfield and the left flank), United was never punished for the tactic.

The approached highlighted Fellaini’s importance. He’s so key to Everton’s success that Ferguson elected to essential man-mark him. As Gary Neville noted on broadcast, it’s something Ferguson’s rarely done.

Everton’s defense just not good enough – On the first goal, you saw why John Heitinga’s no longer a regular starter. Phil Neville and Phil Jagielka each contributed to the second. Tim Howard made a number of bad reads (with poor execution) coming off his line. Everton’s defense wasn’t near good enough to contain a United team who, while they don’t generate a ton of chances, are the most clinical team in the league.

Packaged for takeaway

  • Ryan Giggs looked like he has another year in him. He scored for the 21st consecutive season, showed good flexibility and awareness in defense, and created what should have been a second van Persie goal. 
  • The two teams set up nearly identically, both in 4-4-2 formations with a forward withdrawn. A big tactical difference was how the defenses dealt with that withdrawn forward. United marked Fellaini with Jones. Everton did nothing special for Rooney.
  • Rafael had a very good day at right back. He started the movement for the first goal, assisted on the second, and make a number of good defensive plays, including a key first half clearance on a Kevin Mirallas ball sent through the six-yard box.
  • Everton flipped their wings to start the game, putting Steven Pienaar on the right with Kevin Mirallas on the left. It worked so well Moyes reversed his decision after 15 minutes.
  • For the third straight match, Nikica Jelavic started on the bench for Everton. Victor Anichebe again got the call up top.
  • Social media conversation noticed the off day from Tim Howard and compared it to the performance Brad Guzan gave against West Ham. Whether it’s being replicated within the national team, there’s a conversation starting about the U.S.’s No. 1. (More on Guzan’s strong season at Aston Villa.)

Oxlade-Chamberlain back in Liverpool training

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Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is back in Liverpool training, nine months after a horrible injury cost him the chance to appear in the UEFA Champions League Final.

Initially ruled out for the duration of the 2018-19 season following an ACL year, “The Ox” is giving the Reds a boost in Dubai.

[ MORE: Latest on Emiliano Sala ]

The 25-year-old Oxlade-Chamberlain posted five goals and seven assists in his first season at Liverpool.

Oxlade-Chamberlain has 32 England caps and 283 senior appearances between Southampton, Arsenal, and Liverpool. He left the Gunners in part because of a desire to play a more central role in the midfield.

Oxlade-Chamberlain detailed his recovery late last year. There’s yet to be discussion of when he might be fit to return to match play, but Liverpool will be careful with its industrious playmaker.

Montreal owner Saputo hands presidency duties to Gilmore

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Montreal Impact owner Joey Saputo is giving the reigns of his club to a new president.

Saputo announced Tuesday that he’s handing over presidency duties to Kevin Gilmore, the former chief operating officer of the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens.

[ MORE: Latest on Emiliano Sala ]

The Saputo family founded the Impact in 1992, and Joey Saputo shepherded the club into Major League Soccer.

The Impact is coached by Remi Garde, the former Aston Villa boss, and has Designated Players in Ignacio Piatti and Saphir Taidir. The Bleu-blanc-noir just started training camp.

Cardiff “very distressed,” “praying for positive news” regarding Sala

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Cardiff City executive director Ken Choo has released a statement on the missing flight from France to Wales which carried new signing Emiliano Sala.

Crews in Wales continue to search for the plane, which disappeared from radar late Monday night.

Fans have flocked to Cardiff City Stadium and Nantes town square to lay flowers in hopes of a miraculous recovery for Sala and his pilot.

From Cardiff City’s official site:

“We were very shocked upon hearing the news that the plane had gone missing. We expected Emiliano to arrive last night into Cardiff and today was due to be his first day with the team.

“Our owner, Tan Sri Vincent Tan, and chairman, Mehmet Dalman, are all very distressed about the situation.

“We made the decision first thing this morning to call off training with the thoughts of the squad, management staff and the entire Club with Emiliano and the pilot.

“All of us at Cardiff City FC would like to thank our fans, and the entire footballing family for their support at this difficult time.

“We continue to pray for positive news.”

Ronaldo pleads guilty to tax fraud at Madrid court

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MADRID (AP) Cristiano Ronaldo has pleaded guilty to tax fraud and received a two-year suspended sentence.

The Juventus forward, who was facing charges stemming from his days at Real Madrid, was in court for about 45 minutes and signed an agreement which will cost him nearly 19 million euros ($21.6 million) in fines.

[ MORE: Latest on Emiliano Sala ]

Ronaldo arrived at court in a black van and was wearing a black sports coat and black pants. He walked up some stairs leading to the court house and even stopped to sign an autograph.

Ronaldo made the deal to plead guilty with Spain’s state prosecutor and tax authorities last year.

In Spain, a judge can suspend sentences for two years or less for first-time offenders.

In 2017, a state prosecutor accused Ronaldo of four counts of tax fraud from 2011-14 worth 14.7 million euros ($16.7 million). Ronaldo was accused of having used shell companies outside Spain to hide income made from image rights.

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