Juan Mata’s debut provides hope, leaves questions unanswered for Manchester United

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Had Manchester United kept their $61 million and left Juan Mata on Chelsea’s bench, today’s match against Cardiff may have played out the same way. At least, 2-0 sounds about right. You had the Premier League’s seventh placed team hosting its bottom dwellers, with one of the league’s best goal scorers returning to the home team’s lineup. A two-goal victory is par for the course in these situations.

Mata still made an impression, though. As a focal point above midfield, he provided a level of composure we’re not used to seeing from a Red Devils playmaker. We’re used to the energy of Wayne Rooney, who has excelled this season in that role. Lately, we’re used to the potential of Adnan Januzaj – talent that hints he mat yet be better as a wide-to-in player. With Mata, however, the Red Devils have a number 10 with the patience to let a play develop, something that should mesh well with Rooney’s bombast and Robin Van Persie’s movement.

That patience was evident mid-way through the first half, when the Spanish international pulled up along the right flank and let his runners fly into the box. Moments later, he found Ashley Young attacking the far post for a should-have-been goal.

To a lesser extent, that patience was also evident on his team’s first goal, with Mata electing to chip a ball wide left rather than force something through on the right. Patrice Evra and Ashley Young eventually created the goal Van Persie would score, with Mata having flooded the box to help overwhelm United’s opposition.

Expect to hear the phrase “foot on the ball” a lot over the next few days, because that’s exactly the impression Mata gave. With his acquisition, United finally have a guy who can control plays as well as make them – somebody who can take advantage of the movement he’ll get from his two star forwards.

We knew this about Mata when he arrived, but after half a season languishing at Chelsea, it was nice be reminded. It was refreshing to have somebody so important to the last two years of Premier League soccer back on the field. He didn’t get shipped back to Spain. He didn’t stay packed away in the Chelsea dressing room. The same guy who posted 30 assists over the last two league seasons has been saved – by Manchester United, no less.

Red Devils’ supporters have to be fired up. This is the high point of their season. After five months of middling results and fight amongst themselves about whether David Moyes is okay, bad, or horrible, there’s now another focus. Maybe there’ll be no title race this year, but the team’s Champions League hopes are still alive. And promising to play a more creative brand of soccer than has been offered since May, United may yet again be fun to watch. It wasn’t quite there on Tuesday, but the promise was.

source: AP
Mata’s 52 passes led Manchester United on Tuesday, his four “key passes” (Opta) tying for the team lead in the Red Devils’ 2-0 victory over Cardiff. (Source: AP.)

That promise is dependent on Mata playing well with both Van Persie and Rooney, something we didn’t get a chance to see against Cardiff. Van Persie started, Rooney relieved him, leaving Mata without an opportunity to provide for both scorers at once. That big reveal still awaits, leaving Manchester United with some important unanswered questions.

The way the Red Devils set up today, it was still unclear how they’ll deploy Mata with Van Persie and Rooney. On Tuesday, they played with two forwards – Mata playing behind Van Persie. With a setup not dissimilar to what United’s used all season, Moyes provided a small hint he may not change the formation for Mata’s arrival. After all, he hasn’t changed his approach much since moving from Liverpool to Stretford.

It’s a small hint, one that we shouldn’t read much into, but as NBC Sports analyst Kyle Martino said before the game, there’s a chance Mata ends up wide, playing the position he excelled in before arriving in the Premier League. If that happens — if Moyes does try to make Mata bend to him, rather than adapting to his talent — questions about United’s new manager will grow.

That’s not to say the set up can’t work. Right now, it’s one of a number of ways to get United’s three stars in the same lineup, but until that happens, Mata’s promise will be balanced against unanswered questions about how his new team will ultimately use him.

Ronaldo scores 700th goal for club and country

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Cristiano Ronaldo achieved yet another personal milestone in his star-studded career on Monday evening with a simple penalty kick goal.

With his 72nd minute strike, Ronaldo tallied his 700th goal for club and country in his career. It’s an incredible achievement, and one indicative of his incredible goal-scoring exploits and his long career.

Ronaldo was already leading all active players globally in terms of goals scored, so his 700th is only adding to the list. His former club nemesis, Lionel Messi, still sits a reported 28 goals behind him, according to Soccerway. After them, LA Galaxy striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the closest, and he has “only” 542 goals.

The Portuguese icon becomes the sixth male player to score 700 goals in his career. The others include Pele, Romaro, Josef Bican, Ferenc Puskás, and Gerd Muller.

Ronaldo made his debut for Sporting Lisbon in the 2002-2003 season as a 17-year-old and quickly was snapped up by Man United and Sir Alex Ferguson, where he transitioned from a tricky winger to a clinical striker who couldn’t stop scoring.

The 34-year-old has scored 40-or-more goals on three occasions in his career and he scored 25-or-more goals in all nine years he was at Real Madrid. For Portugal, he’s now scored an incredible 95 goals in all competitions. He had 15 goals in World Cup qualifying alone for the 2018 campaign.

Watch the video of Ronaldo’s breaking goal below. Unfortunately for him, Portugal fell, 2-1 to Ukraine.

Southgate, England players sound off on racist abuse

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England took care of business in Monday’s 6-0 thrashing of Bulgaria, but the Three Lions had to endure some horrendous racist abuse from the crowd during the game.

The match was paused on two occasions I’m the first half by the match officials after racist chanting could be heard from a section of supporters, and a large group of Bulgarian fans were ejected towards the end of the half. However, racist abuse continued during the match from small pockets of fans in the stadium.

[READ: England v. Bulgaria delayed after racist abuse from stands]

“I have to say that the officials were on to everything very quickly,” England manager Gareth Southgate told ITV after the match. “We reported everything immediately when we heard things, we had constant communication with the fourth official and the referee. I was in contact with the players, all the way through the first half in particular, and then again at halftime.

”We know it’s an unacceptable situation, and I think we’ve managed to make two statements. By winning the game, but also we’re raised the awareness of everybody to the situation. The game was stopped twice, I know for some people that won’t be enough, but we as a group were on board with that process.”

Raheem Sterling, who scored a brace in the win, also sounded off on social media, as did former England and Arsenal star Ian Wright.

Ultimately, UEFA and the match officials followed the protocol, but the sad part about this is that England and the officials had a plan for racist abuse, and it was predictable that it would happen.

In a statement after the game, the FA confirmed they would be asking UEFA to investigate what happened. However, any punishment is too little, too late for the players who endured the abuse.

Kane, Sterling star as England rout Bulgaria

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On a night where racist abuse from the stands in Bulgaria marred the overall spectacle, England’s players produced an incredible result and spectacle for the visiting fans, with all things considered.

Harry Kane scored once and assisted on three others as England rolled over Bulgaria, winning 6-0 on Monday evening in the Vasil Levski Stadium in Sofia, Bulgaria. Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley both scored a brace for the Three Lions and Marcus Rashford’s thunderbolt from a tight angle gave England the opening goal it needed.

[READ: USMNT looks to build from win v. Canada]

The blowout result was the perfect response after England had suffered its first loss in qualifying for a decade, losing on Friday, 2-1 at the Czech Republic. The six goals England put past Bulgaria was also the fourth time out of six games that England had scored at least five goals in a match. The only other time, aside from the defeat, was a 4-0 win last month at Wembley Stadium over Bulgaria.

It took just seven minutes for England to get on the board. Barkley found Rashford down the left wing, and after turning a defender with a cross-fake, Rashford cut back from goal and whipped a strike that flashed past Bulgarian goalkeeper Plaman Iliev and in for a goal.

Kane, who has earned some criticism for not scoring as much recently as in the past, showed he was more than a goal-scoring No. 9. Combining with Raheem Sterling like he did so well at the 2018 World Cup, Kane in the 20th minute played a great pass into Sterling’s feet in the box. The Manchester City winger did the rest, crossing to a wide-open Barkley at the back post for a tap-in.

Kane again played provider in the 32nd minute, floating to the right and delivering an-inch perfect cross right to the penalty spot with his left foot. Barkley was there to meet it with a glancing header to score and put the game to rest.

Despite dealing with horrendous racist abuse from the crowd and two pauses in the game, England continued to attack and were rewarded when Kane set up Sterling for another tap-in moments before the halftime break.

Kane and Sterling connected again for another goal before in the 85th minute, Kane finally got his finish to send Bulgaria packing.

Considering the events in the stadium, it’s a triumphant win for England. However, they still must win at least one more game before automatic qualification to Euro 2020 is assured, as Kosovo beat Montenegro, 2-0 on Monday as well to stay within touching distance of England and the Czech Republic.

Racist abuse delays England v. Bulgaria qualifier

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England raced out to an impressive 4-0 lead at Bulgaria by halftime, but the wonderful attacking display was marred by horrendous incidents from the crowd.

The match in the Vasil Levski Stadium in Sofia, Bulgaria was stopped on two occasions with announcements being made to ask sections of the crowd to stop their abusive language. This comes with the stadium already serving a partial stadium closure due to racist chanting from the crowd in previous qualifiers.

Below is UEFA’s protocol on how to intervene in these situations, and what transpired from lead writer Joe Prince-Wright.