Premier League Playback: Man Utd’s revival begins, AVB gone, Arsenal’s bad luck

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LIFE AFTER VAN PERSIE… THERE’S HOPE FOR UNITED

In the midst of Manchester United’s run of no wins in four Premier League games, the news earlier this week that talismanic striker Robin van Persie is out injured for over a month and may miss eight games added to the misery.

But in United’s dominant 3-0 win over Aston Villa on Sunday, several stunning performances proved there may be life after RVP (those strands of dyed jet-black hair won’t hide the wrinkles, Robin) as David Moyes’ men produced an attacking masterclass to potentially reignite their campaign. Moyes has been under-fire for most of this season but managed to crack plenty of smiles in his post-game conference as Danny Welbeck, Antonio Valencia and Adnan Januzaj tore Villa’s defense apart with their desire, speed and skill in a three-pronged assault that left Villa’s young defense in ruins. Yet Moyes wasn’t happy with the way his youngest pretender, Januzaj, was treated as several late tackles flew in.

It’s been a reoccurring theme.

“In every game recently, I don’t know how many tackles have been on Januzaj but the last two, three games that’s why I’ve been annoyed with the fourth officials. Before you know it, the boy will get a sore one because he’s definitely not getting protected by the officials. It’s terrible what they’re allowed to do at the moment because this boy’s an incredible talent. The opposition are queuing up and taking turns at who’s going to have a kick at him next. But Adnan will just get up, walk away and get on with it, he’s a great lad. That’s maybe one of his biggest attributes apart from his outstanding ability, he will just get up and walk away and say ‘go on then, kick me again if you want, I’ll get up again.’” – David Moyes on Januzaj being targeted.

Aside for being worried about his starlet being physically assaulted in most games, Moyes has plenty to be happy about.

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Click to enlarge – Welbeck is about to enter the box, as his desire to get to the ball first seems him bag a crucial second goal for United. Note: Rooney on the edge and Januzaj slashing in from the left flank.

He spoke about his delight in seeing Welbeck get back on the score sheet, as the United forward grabbed his first PL goals since the opening day of the season with two predatory strikes in the box. Welbeck, 23, showed his vast hunger and desire to finish both off, just look at the image on the left as Valencia (who was outstanding on the wing) prepared to cross the ball in for Welbeck’s second goal. From that position, you see how much ground the England international has to make up but he got to the ball first, tellingly ahead of his teammate Januzaj, who was always extremely hungry and eager to attack. The Belgian born winger was ready to prove a point all afternoon as his terrific header, which cannoned off the post to give Welbeck his first goal, proved.

Plus his relentless running down the left saw his slight frame breeze past players as if they weren’t there, with the 18-year-olds pace a real asset.

Moyes mentioned that you have to “show what you can do” when opportunities arise.

Welbeck, Januzaj and Valencia all did that with RVP and Javier Hernandez on the sidelines. The pressure looked off for the Red Devils as the feel-good factor returned following a horrid month in which their last PL win came on Nov. 10 against Arsenal. They proved that their attacking juggernaut can be in full flow without being directed by RVP and that bodes well for the rest of the season. Also telling is that United have scored 17 away from home but just eight at home… Are the shackles loosened when they’re away from the 75,000 home fans scrutinizing their every move at Old Trafford maybe?

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Click to enlarge – My prematch thoughts on United were answered with resounding displays from Januzaj, Welbeck and Valencia

Before Sunday’s game as I sipped on a cup of coffee in the press box under the grey clouds forming above Birmingham, I circled Welbeck, Januzaj and Valencia’s names on my team sheet, linked them together and put a question mark next to them… Honest. Look at the picture on the right. I did that because I was unimpressed with them so far, they had to show everyone they had the desire to be winners.

They did that. And some.

Those three were the shinning lights, along with Wayne Rooney, in a dazzling display in the damp drizzle at Villa Park. United’s new-look attacking trio with Rooney orchestrating things from a deep-lying role offers cause for optimism amongst United’s fans who chanted “we are staying up” with heavy irony when the Red Devils went ahead. They’ve had their struggles this season, that’s been well documented. But with a run of three very winnable games coming up in the league (against West Ham, Hull and Norwich) the likes of Darren Fletcher returning from a long-term illness to rapturous applause in the second half and even the much-maligned Tom Cleverley getting a goal and playing well, there’s plenty to be cheerful for this Christmas at Old Trafford.

Just ignore the fact that they’re in 8th place and 10 points behind leaders Arsenal. The way this PL season’s going, United will be back top of the table by the end of January…

If they keep attacking like they did against Villa, they have every chance.

Premier League Schedule – Week 16

Result Recap & Highlights
Aston Villa 0-3 Man Utd Recap and watch here
Cardiff 1-0 West Brom Recap and watch here
Chelsea 2-1 Crystal Palace Recap and watch here
Everton 4-1 Fulham Recap and watch here
Hull City 0-0 Stoke City Recap and watch here
Man City 6-3 Arsenal Recap and watch here
Newcastle 1-1 Southampton Recap and watch here
Norwich 1-1 Swansea Recap and watch here
Tottenham 0-5 Liverpool Recap and watch here
West Ham 0-0 Sunderland Recap and watch here

HIGH-LINE, TRANSFER MEDDLING SEES AVB’S TIME TICKING

Number one, Tottenham is in trouble. Number two, so is Andre Villas-Boas.

UPDATE: Andre Villas-Boas has been sacked as Spurs’ manager. But the rest still applies…

After seeing his side collapse once again to a team full of attacking creativity and nous, AVB’s time at Tottenham Hotspur has now run out as Spurs were humiliated 5-0 by Liverpool at White Hart Lane. Sad fact is, it could’ve been more.

Do Spurs work on defending during the week at the training ground? It doesn’t seem like it. To be fair they had Ettiene Capoue, usually a central midfielder, playing at center back and he looked all at sea as he pushed up high and Tottenham kept a criminally high-line against one of the deadliest strikers in world soccer Luis Suarez, who made them pay with two goals and had a hand in the others. The defending was extremely poor and it shows Spurs have got insufficient cover at the back due to injuries.

That brings me to my next point.

When AVB and Franco Baldini ‘masterminded’ one of the biggest roster reconstructions in PL history over the summer, many (including yours truly) were hailing Tottenham’s manager and the Sporting Director as geniuses for the way they worked the market and brought in eight top-class players for one, when they sold Gareth Bale to Real Madrid for approximately $132 million.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Baldini and AVB forget that more defenders were needed and just went out and bought a ton of midfielders who were either industrious wide players or industrious central guys. They were all clones of each other. Now, when Spurs are looking for a change and fresh impetus off the bench, the players they bring on all do the same thing. New guys Paulinho, Nacer Chadli, Erik Lamela and Capoue are the same as Aaron Lennon, Andros Townsend, Mousa Dembele and Lewis Holtby. Did nobody think of that?

Asked of the transfer policy after the game and if he had made the signings or was given the players by Baldini, AVB gave a strange answer as he mumbled through his answer and backed the players, completely dodging the issue.

The fact that his side has had their pants pulled down and their backsides smacked twice in the last five PL games won’t help his cause, as the Portuguese managers’ future is hanging in the balance at Spurs.

He was fired less than 24 hours after the humbling loss. Nobody was surprised.

Liverpool were fantastic and look like title-contenders, let alone settling for a top four finish. Tottenham are a million miles away from that and AVB is history.

Note: Steve Clarke lost his job as manager of West Bromwich Albion after their defeat to Cardiff on Saturday. Just nine wins in 41 games in charge isn’t a great return but many thought the sacking was harsh. Five managers and counting in this season sack race, so far…

ARSENAL HARD DONE BY TO LOSE 6-3? PERHAPS…

Okay, Manchester City were sublime going forward and in the grand scheme of things deserved all three points in their brilliant display of finishing when beating Arsenal 6-3 on Saturday at the Eithad. But it all could’ve been so different if a few pivotal calls would’ve gone Arsenal’s way.

In the first half two clear offside calls were somehow flagged as Nacho Monreal and Theo Walcott raced through on goal. Both, more than likely, would’ve resulted in goals for Arsenal. In the second half Olivier Giroud was adjudged to be offside as a telling cross approached him in the box. Like the other decisions, replays showed he wasn’t offside.

And finally, to cap it all off, Niklas Bendtner’s goal late in the game was ruled out when he was clearly onside to infuriate Arsenal’s fans, players (so much so that Jack Wilshere is facing a ban as he flipped the bird) and their manager.

Do they have a point? City were incredibly good going forward but Alvaro Negredo did stray into an offside position for his goal. Sooo, if we add those mistake by officials up, Arsenal win 7-6 or 6-5… There’s a small margin for error in this game and the officials are just as capable as the players for some results. Believe me, I’m not taking anything away from City for winning this game. I’m just chucking the evidence out there. Regardless, Wenger wasn’t happy with the defending and Mesut Ozil is in hot water after refusing to go and applaud Arsenal’s fans despite captain and fellow countryman Per Mertesacker telling him to.

THROWING PUNCHES AND PULLING TRICKS

We’ve talked about some pretty heavy stuff in playback this week, so it’s time to tone things down.

Have you ever seen a ref take a dive? That’s right folks, it happened.

First up, we all love the referees (deep down) and realize the game couldn’t happen without them. Moussa Sissoko’s right fist struck poor Mike Jones with an accidental uppercut to his nose from Newcastle’s French attacker with he was involved in ‘handbags’ with Saints’ ‘keeper Paolo Gaazaniga. In the same game, Newcastle and Southampton’s benches cleared as a huge scuffle broke out between the coaching staffs just after Jones had his nose reattached and plugged up to continue. What a crazy ending to that game at St. James Park. Enjoy, or grimace, as you watch it all unfold above.

Finishing on another light note, don’t adjust your displays when looking at the image below. Yes, Peter Whittingham and Peter Odemwingie do both look like they’re about to strike the free kick at the same time, one with his left foot and the other with his right, in Cardiff’s 1-0 win over West Brom on Saturday.

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Click to enlarge – who took this free kick… Whittingham or Odemwingie?

Can you work out which players actually hit the ball? Bizarre.

I’ve seen this before and if it comes off, it utterly bamboozles the ‘keeper and could be a trick we see deployed more often as the season goes on. Hilarious, devious and downright genius.

Premier League Playback comes out every Monday and takes an alternative look at the PL weekend gone by.

German Cup: Bayern Munich complete double by beating Leipzig

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BERLIN (AP) Captain Manuel Neuer returned from six weeks out injured to help Bayern Munich complete a domestic double after beating Leipzig 3-0 in the German Cup final on Saturday.

[ MORE: Valencia end Barcelona’s four-year hold on Copa del Rey ]

Robert Lewandowski scored twice and Kingsley Coman grabbed the other as Bayern claimed a record-extending 19th cup win to make up for the disappointment of losing last year’s final to Eintracht Frankfurt.

Bayern coach Niko Kovac, who was in charge of Frankfurt at the time, boosted his chances of keeping his job in Munich after bringing a successful end to what had been a testing season.

Neuer, who missed Bayern’s Bundesliga triumph the week before due to a calf injury, produced two stunning saves in either half when a goal for Leipzig might have been decisive.

Neuer somehow denied Yussuf Poulsen’s header from close range in the 11th minute, when the ball crashed back off the crossbar, and got the better of Emil Forsberg in a one-on-one after the break, when the Swedish midfielder should have equalized.

“You couldn’t write a better script,” Neuer said.

Lewandowski opened the scoring with a header in the 29th, Coman doubled the lead in the 78th after Forsberg’s miss, and Lewandowski wrapped it up with a chip over the goalkeeper in the 85th.

[ U-20 WORLD CUP: Ezequiel Barco’s golazo paces Argentina to big win ]

Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery went on late to make their last appearances for Bayern after 10 and 12 seasons respectively. Ribery became the only player to play in eight German Cup finals.

“They delivered a lot for the team and the club,” Lewandowski said. “We have to be grateful.”

Leipzig was appearing in its first, and had been hoping to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its founding date with a win. Thousands of fans made the relatively short journey from Saxony to cheer their side, though they found themselves outnumbered by Bayern fans at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, which hosts German soccer’s showpiece every year.

“It’s a huge disappointment,” Leipzig chairman Oliver Mintzlaff said. “When you come here, you want to win.”

The supporters had been warming up for hours before the encounter, downing beers and singing songs at various locations in the city before making their way to the game. Fans who arrived on chartered buses lit barbeques and shared crates of beer by the side of the road.

Leipzig coach Ralf Rangnick, the sporting director who took charge of the team on an interim basis before Julian Nagelsmann arrives from Hoffenheim, started with his strongest team, with American Tyler Adams lining up beside Kevin Kampl in midfield.

Leipzig looked sharper, fresher and quicker at the start, but one lapse was all Lewandowski needed to open the scoring. David Alaba whipped the ball in toward the penalty spot, where Lewandowski had too much space to head inside the left post.

Coman displayed a fantastic first touch to control the ball past the helpless Peter Gulacsi for Bayern’s second, and Lewandowski ensured the result was emphatic when he claimed his competition-leading seventh goal. Lewandowski was booked for removing his shirt in the celebrations, but he accepted the yellow card with a smile.

“We worked hard for the whole season. In the end you could say it was a good season for us,” the Polish striker said.

Valencia end Barcelona’s four-year hold on Copa del Rey

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Barcelona’s four-year reign as Copa del Rey holders came to an unceremonious end on Saturday, as Valencia shocked Barcelona in the 2018-19 final in Seville.

[ U-20 WORLD CUP: Ezequiel Barco’s golazo paces Argentina to big win ]

Saturday’s upset capped off a thoroughly successful 100th season for Valencia, who finished fourth in La Liga — assuring them of a second straight season in the Champions League — and lifted the club’s first major trophy since its last Copa triumph, in 2008.

Barca, on the other hand, must make do with merely winning the league title by 11 points and reaching the Champions League semifinals.

Kevin Gameiro opened the scoring with a powerful strike from the edge of the penalty area in the 21st minute. Jose Gaya’s cross came in from the left and found the Frenchman all by himself with plenty of time for a touch to settle and open up space for the shot.

Rodrigo Moreno doubled Valencia’s lead in the 33rd minute, sending a downward header past Jasper Cillessen after Carlos Soler worked his way around Jordi Alba to deliver a hard-hit ball across the face of goal.

Lionel Messi tapped home an empty-net rebound to pull a goal back for Barcelona in the 73rd minute, but that’s as close as Barca would get to mounting a comeback.

Valencia have now lifted the Copa del Rey on eight occasions (fifth-most all time), but still trail Barca’s record of 30 Copas by some way.

U-20 WC roundup: Barco’s golazo paces Argentina to big win

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A roundup of all of Saturday’s action at the U-20 World Cup in Poland…

[ TRANSFER RUMORS: Man United after Portuguese duo; Spurs want Lo Celso ]

France 2-0 Saudi Arabia

While France enjoyed nearly 70 percent of possession, thanks to playing 78 minutes with a man advantage, they were anything but dominant and overwhelming in their 2-0 victory over Saudi Arabia.

Les Bleus‘ opener came just before halftime, when Youssouf Fofana (Strasbourg) volleyed home from the edge of the penalty area. Saudi Arabia went dangerously close to equalizing just seconds later, but Illan Meslier (Lorient) made a stellar save to his left to deny Turki Al-Ammar.

The 1-0 scoreline remained all the way until the 75th minute, when finally Amine Gouiri (Lyon) hit a shot off the hands of the goalkeeper and watched as it bounced over the goal line for a 2-0 lead and to complete the scoring.

France will take on Panama in their next Group E game on Tuesday.

Argentina 5-2 South Africa

Ezequiel Barco might have made himself — and Atlanta United — a few million dollars on Saturday, thanks to an otherworldly golazo in Argentina’s 5-2 victory over South Africa.

The 20-year-old hit the following volley from just inside the penalty area to make it 3-1. All you can do is sit back, watch in awe and count up all the extra dollars Atlanta United are now set to make when Barco inevitably moves to Europe, following in the footsteps of Miguel Almiron and his $30-million move to Newcastle United in January.

Fausto Vera (Argentinos Juniors) opened the in just the 4th minute, followed by Barco’s first of the game — from the penalty spot — in the 63rd. The golazo came eight minutes later, followed by late tallies from Julian Alvarez (River Plate) and Adolfo Gaich (San Lorenzo) in the 78th and 90th minutes, respectively.

Next up, Argentina will face Portugal in a battle for Group F supremacy on Tuesday.

Portugal 1-0 South Korea

Much like France, Portugal were made to work mightily hard for their tournament-opening victory over South Korea.

Trincao (Braga) scored the game’s only goal in the 7th minute, when he timed his run perfectly to get on the end of Jota’s (Benfica) through ball. The counter-attack was lightning quick, and Trincao’s finish cool and precise. Portugal had the ball in the back of the net again in the 19th minute, but a look at video review revealed that Rafael Leao (Lille) was offside during the build-up before he picked out Trincao with his cross.

Elsewhere in the U-20 World Cup

Panama 1-1 Mali 0 [ HIGHLIGHTS ]

Sunday’s U-20 World Cup schedule

Mexico v. Japan — 9:30 a.m. ET
Ecuador v. Italy — 12 p.m. ET
Senegal v. Colombia — 12 p.m. ET
Poland v. Tahiti — 2:30 p.m. ET

De Rossi pens emotional farewell to Roma fans before final match

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After 18 years with the club, Daniele de Rossi is playing in his final AS Roma match on Sunday before his contract expires.

Ahead of the game, the 35-year-old midfielder wrote a detailed thank you to fans, team employees, and teammates before his sendoff. “Please, let me say thank you to everyone at Roma that I came to know,” he said before beginning his list of appreciation.

First, Rossi credited his playing mentor Damiano Tommasi, who was at the club from 1996-2006 and made 262 appearances for Roma. The midfielder suffered a knee injury in 2004 which saw Rossi break into the team full-time after making his professional debut in 2002. “[to] Damiano, without whom I would certainly have made fewer appearances for this club,” de Rossi wrote.

He also thanks former captain Francesco Totti by saying, “Thank you to Francesco. The captain’s armband I wore was inherited from the arm of a brother, a great captain and the most incredible footballer I have ever seen wear this shirt. Not everyone gets to play alongside their idol for 16 years. Now, with respect, I will pass this armband on to Alessandro [Florenzi]. Another brother, one that I know is equally worthy of the honor.”

De Rossi mentions Davide Astori, the Fiorentina player who passed away tragically in March of last year, saying, “Thank you Davide, I know you will be alongside me for the rest of my life too.” He also thanks Roma academy director Bruno Conti, saying, “[to] Bruno, who saw something special in me and brought me into this club’s fantastic academy.”

Finally, he thanks the Roma supporters, saying, “Thank you to every Roma fan, my fans. Today, at least, I’ll allow myself to call you ‘my fans’ – because I was one of you, out there on the pitch, and the love you have always shown me helped me to keep on doing that. You are all the reason why I chose this city, this life, time and time again. Sunday will be the 616th time I make that choice, the right choice.”

The emotion poured out in the final paragraph of his letter, referencing a tough time in Roma history where the club finished outside the top four for the third straight season and lost in the Coppa Italia final to Lazio. “A few years ago, May 26 became a day where we all thought we would never be able to smile again. I thought that too, at least until I saw a tattoo one fan had inked that read, ’27 May 2013, and yet the wind continues to blow’. I don’t know the owner of that particular tattoo, but I do know that the wind will still blow again on this May 27. I have never felt your affection like I have done in these last few days, it has truly overwhelmed me and touched me to my core.”

“Never have I seen you all united for a cause like you have been for this. But now, the greatest gift you can possibly give me is to leave that pain and anger to one side, and start again in full support of the only thing we all care about, the one thing that comes before everyone and everything – Roma.”

What a legend this man is. Roma sure knows how to produce a type of player not seen much around the rest of the world.