What we learned from Manchester United’s win over Hull

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  • David Moyes’ moves pay off

No, not the banning of a reporter for writing something unkind, although for purposes of channeling his inner Sir Alex, that’s certainly going in the right direction.

No, the “right moves” in question here were the in-game personnel maneuvers on Boxing Day, which may have forced by circumstance but were nonetheless audaciously aggressive and attack-minded. And in the end, spot on!

First came the early replacement of injured right back Rafael. Rather than bringing on a lesser talented defender, Moyes summoned young midfield phenom Adnan Januzaj and bumped midfielder Antonio Valencia to right-back. And it worked quite beautifully. (It did, at least, until the already-booked Valencia impetuously kicked a ball away and got himself sent off just before the 90-minue mark. Tsk-tsk.)

Later, a curious brow or two was raised when striker Javier Hernandez replaced midfielder Darren Fletcher. But that, too, turned out sweet as English spring roses for Moyes’ men.

Rooney, ever versatile, as we know, retreated into a holding midfield role alongside Tom Cleverly. Hernandez, the Mexican international who just can’t quite work up a bulk of minutes around Old Trafford, played up front, slightly ahead of Welbeck.

And it wasn’t like Moyes didn’t have other options; don’t forget that Michael Carrick was available once again and could have been preferred at that moment. (Carrick did, in fact, come on later.)

(MORE: Manchester United take all the points at the KC Stadium)

  • Steve Bruce STILL cannot beat his old club

Manchester United faithful of a certain age certainly remember Steve Bruce on patrol at Old Trafford, a serious cop on the back line beat.

So it must hurt just a little to see the man struggle so these days in these ongoing encounters with his old love. Yes, it means their team typically has one hand on a “W” when Bruce’s team bus pulls up. But in their heart of hearts, wouldn’t they like to see Bruce get just one measly little three-point achievement at some point of his long managerial career?

The count is up to 19; as in, “number of matches without a win as manager against Manchester United.” That includes attempts as the boss at Birmingham, Wigan, Sunderland and now Hull City.

For the record, Bruce’s record is now 0-15-4.

  • Phil Jones out for United during a busy spell

Speaking of Carrick’s return, the timing could not possibly be any better. That’s because midfielder Phil Jones, such a good utility man around Old Trafford this year, will be out at least two weeks with a knee injury. The club announced Jones’ setback before Thursday’s contest.

Jones has 24 appearances for United or for England this year, used in both defense and in the midfield.

With four matches over the next 12 days (including one in the FA Cup, one in the League Cup and two in the Premier League), Moyes and Co. will need every possible fresh leg.

Sampaoli defends Messi, blasts Argentina squad

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Jorge Sampaoli is lambasting his team after a 3-0 loss put Argentina on the edge of failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup’s knockout rounds.

“The reality of the Argentina squad clouds Lionel Messi’s brilliance,” Sampaoli said. “The team doesn’t gel as well as it should.”

[ MORE: Modric urges humility ]

Sampaoli said his players could not find a way to get the ball to Messi, and that the introduction of Boca Juniors youngster Cristian Pavón was aimed at opening up the field a little bit.

And Sampaoli is not shying away from the long-discussed comparison between Messi and Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo. From the BBC:

“Cristiano is a great player and he has achieved a lot with club and country. Right now it is hard to compare these two players because of the ability in the Argentinian squad clouds the judgment. Leo is in a difficult position because the squad doesn’t gel with him. As coach I have to accept that. I don’t feel shame but I definitely feel pain. It has been a long time since I have gone through this experience as a coach and obviously it is more painful when I’m wearing the colours of my country.

“We have no alternative but to give it our all in the final match. We have not performed at the level the country expects. We were ambitious ahead of the game but now it is harder for us as a group. We did think this would be the match we can take off as a team, but it wasn’t in the end. I think this is an excellent squad but we didn’t gel or come together. We need to take advantage of the next match, when the pressure will be on, and hope to progress.”

Now, of course Sampaoli is going to defend Messi, but Argentina’s team is not chopped liver. The side certainly isn’t as deep or solid as Croatia, but 1-1 with Iceland preceded this one.

That said, Argentina’s performance once Croatia essentially decided to surround Messi was unacceptable. If favored Nigeria doesn’t handle its business against Iceland, the World Cup finalists won’t have a prayer of going back.

Modric urges humility after big win, stunning goal (video)

AP Photo / Ricardo Mazalan
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There are few teams who’ve looked as strong as Croatia at the World Cup in Russia.

[ RECAP: Argentina 0-3 Croatia ]

Zlatko Dalic’s men now have a pair of shutout wins against decent competition, topping Nigeria 2-0 over the weekend before hammering Argentina 3-0 on Thursday.

The nature of those performances will have many, us included, debating just how far Croatia can run in this tournament. Veteran midfielder Luka Modric is hoping his team doesn’t do the same.

Let’s not be euphoric or get ahead of ourselves,” Modric said. “Of course this win will boost our confidence for the next game, and we have shown we can create opportunities, but let’s keep our feet firmly on the ground.”

Modric noted that Willy Caballero‘s howler “was a shot in the arm,” but added that they had played a “perfect game.”

That’s true. And while so much focus will be on Messi’s struggles, don’t sleep on the terrific performance of Vatreni. 

Modric also seemed to bristle when asked about shutting down Messi.

“I don’t want to talk about other players. We are happy with our own performance. We wanted to cut out Messi receiving the ball because he is the most dangerous player.”

Croatia smashes disheveled Argentina

AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan
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Ante Rebic, Luka Modric, and Ivan Rakitic have Croatia in the knockout rounds and Argentina on the verge of World Cup disaster.

Croatia scored a trio of second half goals, one aided by a Willy Caballero howler, in a 3-0 win in Nizhny Novgorod on Thursday.

Argentina will enter its final match against Nigeria on the outskirts of the knockout rounds regardless of how Nigeria-Iceland ends on Friday.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Ivan Perisic forced a big save out of Wily Caballero for an early Croatia corner kick that came to nothing.

Messi had a chance stopped inside of 10 minutes, then started a play that Dejan Lovren blocked for a corner in the 13th.

Enzo Perez missed an open goal off a poor Croatia giveaway in the 30th minute.

There were a pair of fouls not out of place on a red card lowlight reel, one for each team, but neither resulting in a sending off.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.

Croatia took the lead through Caballero’s gaffe and Rebic’s smash in the 54th.

Argentina nearly answered moments later. After a mazy Messi dribble, Argentina regained possession in the 64th minute, spearheaded by a Gonzalo Higuain run that led to a corner.

Croatia came close to making it 2-0, as Mario Mandzukic couldn’t turn a flick on frame and instead saw it glide into the outside of the goal.

Then Modric put the match to bed as the clock hit 80, an absolute beauty. Another huge defensive mistake allowed Mateo Kovacic to cue up Rakitic for the third.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

WATCH: Caballero blunder punished as Rebic rip puts Argentina on ropes

AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin
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Willy Caballero has made one of the bigger blunders in recent World Cup history.

His Argentina side needs at least a point from Thursday’s match-up with Croatia, and the match remained scoreless into halftime.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

But 10 minutes after the break, Caballero flubbed a clearance in a big way.

The Argentina goalkeeper then could only watch as Ante Rebic kept his composure to blast a side volley into the goal.

It was a fine finish, to be sure, but not possible without such a terrible gaffe.