Marquee win proves van Gaal’s Manchester United on the right track

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LONDON — Manchester United are finding a way to get it done. They proved that in a spirited 2-1 win over Arsenal on Saturday.

The Red Devils have rebounded from injuries, poor form and a huge turnover in players to be in the top four of the Premier League at the end of November. That’s no mean feat.

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As Wayne Rooney raced in on goal and dinked the ball into the net for United’s second goal late on at the Emirates Stadium, manager Louis van Gaal jumped up from his seat and punched the air with glee.

Slowly but surely, United are turning things around. This win at Arsenal proved it. But van Gaal wasn’t happy is forever a perfectionist.

“No I was not pleased with the way we played in the first half,” van Gaal said. “Of course you mean it was an away game against a top team. So it was good that we have won. Also it was the right  moment to win this game. I have to say the first 25 minutes we gave the ball away easily, that is not possible. Because of that Arsenal created a lot. Fortunately we have a very good goalkeeper. After the first 25 minutes you saw that we are coming back in the game.”

After being dominated in the first half, van Gaal urged his players to be braver on the ball and slammed his fist on the table of the conference room at the Emirates Stadium when making that point.

“I said at half time. When we keep the ball and show confidence then we shall create many, many chances,” van Gaal said. “We created at least three big chances. Di Maria could have finished the game, but two times the pass was easily to give to Di Maria and Wayne Rooney and the pass was not alright. So we have to improve that. But I am very happy of course.”

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Rooney bagged what turned out to be the game-winner as United go fourth.

Injuries were again the key word around United’s squad as they started in a 3-5-2 formation that have not used since Aug. 30 when they faced Burnley. Early on they looked shaky and struggled to get to grips with Arsenal’s fluid frontline. Van Gaal has not featured his favored formation for quite some time with injuries in defense and had to try it once again as the Red Devils’ injuries persist.

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“First I hope there are players coming back from injury because it is unbelievably difficult to create consistency in the team because I have to change every week my lineup,” van Gaal said. “When you are a coach you have the same lineup and maybe change one or two. I have changed many players and changed the formation. That is not always good to create consistency in the team.”

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That said, United’s players adapted well on the fly with young center backs Paddy McNair and Tyler Blackett standing up tall in the face of adversity away at Arsenal with over 60,000 baying for their blood. Asked if it was risky to play such a young backline, van Gaal had the following to say.

“I said this before the match that I made the right decision. To make this decision before the match. Okay… that is a quality decision. I can say that now,” van Gaal laughed. “But at the same time I say that, that’s the life of a manager or a coach. The result is always giving you the reason. I have to say that I cannot do other things because I don’t have many players.”

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United have now now lost just once in their last 15 matches against Arsenal while Wayne Rooney has scored 11 goals against the Gunners during his career. That is more than any single player in Premier League history, as the stars aligned to hand United a marquee win they will hope to build off.

“We rode our luck at times, our goalkeeper was fantastic,” Rooney admitted. “We felt they were vulnerable on the break and we hit them with two good goals, which was our game plan.”

As for the Gunners, they are heading in the opposite direction as Arsenal now have 17 points from their opening 12 games which is their worst start to a PL season.

“We had the best chances and we could have finished better,” Wenger said. “At 1-0 we should have been more cautious not to give the second goal away. There was plenty of time to come back and that’s where we made the mistake. In our job when you don’t win, you’re very concerned but there are a lot of positives in this team. If we can keep this going with the quality and the energy levels we have, we can bounce back very quickly.”

This match was billed as a top four clash before it began. After grinding out a crucial win United look more likely to qualify for the Champions League than Arsenal on this showing, simply because they adjusted and dug deep to get what they wanted. Rather than wilting and looking unable to seize the moment, like the Gunners have now down time and time again this campaign. Last season United finished 15 points and three places behind Arsenal. That shows how far van Gaal’s men have come in a relatively short space of time but the Dutchman isn’t getting carried away.

“It is the first away victory and the players are very excited but it is just one victory,” van Gaal said. “We have to confirm that with further victories and then we can say we have the spirit and can start looking upstairs and not downstairs.”

Giroud upset with reserve role at Chelsea

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Olivier Giroud does not look back on his transfer to Chelsea and wish he had done things differently, but that doesn’t mean things are all sunshine and roses for the 33-year-old.

Giroud, who moved to Chelsea from Arsenal in the winter of 2018 after six years with the Gunners, has played just 43 times in the Premier League, averaging just 35 minutes per appearance. That has him frustrated, hoping to prove his loyalty to the club and work harder than the other options up front.

“I had competitors in attack – [Alvaro] Morata, [Gonzalo] Higuain, who ended up leaving,” Giroud said. “I won at the end: I played the final of the FA Cup in 2018 and the [Europa League] final in 2019. Once again, I’m starting the year in a difficult situation. But as my brother says, I have always built myself in the face of adversity.”

Girou is trying to be smart about how he approaches the competition for time with the likes of Tammy Abraham and Michy Batshuayi, but he says it is emotionally taxing.

“You do not have to be fatalistic in certain situations,” Giroud says about keeping a level head. “I have always been respectful and humble. Even if I do not agree with the coach, I do not criticize him. But in myself, I cannot accept it because I know what I’m worth on a pitch.”

The French international has made just three league appearances this season, mostly thanks to Abraham’s scalding form. Abraham, still just 22 years old, has snatched his opportunity for first-team minutes with eight goals in eight games to start the campaign. That has left Giroud on the sidelines for each of the last five league games, missing out on a spot in the matchday squad altogether for the last three.

Despite his struggles at the club level, Giroud has maintained his place in the French national team, missing just five matches of France’s last 64 games, including 37 of the last 39.

James says he was not knocked unconscious in Wales draw

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Head injury awareness again rose to the forefront in the 1-1 draw between Wales and Croatia in Cardiff when Daniel James went down after colliding with a pair of opponents.

The Manchester United winger looked to almost sure have been knocked unconscious when Domagoj Vida’s knee appeared to tap the back of his head while challenging for a ball in the air. Vida went toppling over the back of teammate Borna Barisic who ducked out of the way, but it was James who many were concerned for as he lay motionless on his back with his eyes closed.

Yet James was allowed to come back onto the field and completed the full 90 minutes, sparking criticism from injury advocates and fans who were concerned for James’ safety on the field, at potential risk for even more serious consequences should he indeed have suffered a concussion.

After the game however, despite what fans saw as James lie on the turf, the 21-year-old insisted he was not knocked unconscious. “I’m fine,” James claimed after the match, speaking to Sky Sports. “I think he just caught me in the head but I didn’t get knocked out fortunately.”

Wales boss Ryan Giggs backed up the decision as well, calling James’ motionless display “a bit of acting.”

“The medical staff went over, he was compos mentis and we did all the checks at half-time and he was fine,” Giggs said, referring to the latin phrase for “of sound mind.”

If James was indeed faking unconsciousness, it’s natural to wonder if he should face a fine from UEFA for looking to con referees, and in the process possibly confusing the independent neurologists on site assigned to assess head injuries.

ESPN broadcaster Taylor Twellman, who has been outspoken over the past few years advocating for head injury awareness after his career was cut short by concussions, took to Twitter to criticize Wales for allowing James back into the game. Twellman, who was on the ESPN call of the broadcast with Ian Darke, said more needs to be done to prevent players from being able to force their way back onto the field, lest someone be killed by second impact syndrome.

Former Hull City player Ryan Mason, who was forced to retire after a serious skull fracture saw him fighting for his life, was also seriously concerned about the incident.

Interestingly enough, later in the match just seconds after the second half restart, young Wales midfielder Ethan Ampadu was whalloped from behind by Croatia’s Bruno Petkovic in a wild and reckless aerial challenge. Petkovic’s elbow went clattering into the back of Ampadu’s head, and the was left writhing on the ground holding his head. The Chelsea youngster was taken off the field and immediately replaced by Joe Morrell, while Petkovic was lucky to escape with just a yellow card.

Kane reflects on Tottenham, England struggles

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Harry Kane keeps finding the back of the net, but his teams keep losing.

The 26-year-old striker has bagged five Premier League goals in eight games for Spurs thus far, plus another seven goals for England in five Euro 2020 qualifiers this cycle. Yet Tottenham sits ninth in the table after three losses already this season, while England slumped to its first Euro defeat last time out, putting its seeding at the Euro finals next summer in jeopardy.

Kane is hoping to be a leader through the tough times for both club and country, wearing the armband for both as it currently stands.

“I think you need to lead by example,” Kane said ahead of England’s visit to Bulgaria on Monday. “Not getting too down when you lose a game, not getting too high when you win games. It is a long, old season for club and country ahead – a lot of games to be played so there are going to be tough periods.”

Kane has taken over the England captaincy on a permanent basis, and is filling in for the injured Hugo Lloris at Tottenham. “I am still the same person,” he said. “I still try and lead by example on and off the pitch and I will continue to do that. I have been in high pressure situations before in my career, whether that is going through goal droughts, playing in high-pressure games or not playing well as a team. It is something I will take in my stride and improve on.”

Leading by example includes finding the back of the net, while also supporting teammates both on and off the pitch. He knows even if he’s in good personal form on the stat sheet, there’s always ways to improve and help the squads through tough times.

“I am scoring goals but can I get more assists, create more chances? So yeah, I always look at little things I can get better at. Yes, the England form has been good but as ever, it can be better. We will see if I can continue scoring. It has been a good campaign but important I do not stop now.”

Euro qualifying: Gundogan saves 10-man Germany, Bale earns Wales draw

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Germany played for much of its visit to Estonia with 10 men as Emre Can was sent off for a bad last-man tackle just 14 minutes in, but Ilkay Gundogan‘s second-half brace saw Germany slide through with all three points on a 3-0 win to jump back on top of Group C. The all-important first came on a deflected effort from just outside the box to the right of center, while his second came minutes later with a shot from nearly the same place but just inside the area. Timo Werner added the third with under 20 minutes to go.

Wales secured a 1-1 draw at home against Croatia, but both sides will have greivences with the refereeing. Daniel James was taken out by Dejan Lovren on the edge of the box eight minutes in and likely should have been a penalty kick as the Liverpool defender barged James over without playing the ball. After Nikola Vlasic put Croatia ahead moments later, Gareth Bale would equalize just before halftime one a silky play through the Croatian defense, but a foul in the buildup wasn’t called that would have stopped play before the goalscoring moment.

There were also a pair of scary moments that involved nasty-looking head injuries. James came together with a pair of Croatians in the first half, and while it looked initially like Borna Barisic and Domagoj Vida had taken the brunt of the clash, James appeared to lose consciousness thanks to a knee in the back of his head. Despite the appearance of a clear distressing head injury, James was allowed to continue. Just second after the halftime break, Ethan Ampadu settled under the ball for a header until Bruno Petkovic blasted through his torso from behind, sending the Welsh midfielder to the ground awkwardly, holding his head in agony. Petkovic came in so hard that he earned a yellow card and maybe could have even seen red on another day. Ampadu was not allowed to continue, replaced immediately by Joe Morrell. Also notable in the match, Mateo Kovacic was taken off at halftime after appearing to pick up a muscle problem.

Austria held on for a 1-0 victory over Slovenia to temporarily jump into the lead in Group G, ahead of Poland on goal differential. Hoffenheim defender Stefan Posch scored the game’s only goal, a 21st minute effort off a corner. The back line did the rest, holding the hosts to just two shots on target in Ljubljana.

Poland secured qualification to the finals with a 2-0 win over North Macedonia behind goals from Przemyslaw Frankowski and Arkadiusz Milik, both which came in the final 20 minutes. The first was a messy finish from Chicago Fire winger Frankowski, collecting a flubbed Robert Lewandowski shot and poking it through past goakeeper Stole Dimitrievski. The second goal was much prettier, with the referee playing advantage after Lewandowski was fouled, and Milik delivered a delicious looper into the far corner.

Click here to see a roundup of the action from the early slate of games, including wins by Belgium, the Netherlands, and Russia.

Full Sunday Euro 2020 qualification scoreboard:

Kazakhstan 0-2 Belgium
Belarus 1-2 Netherlands
Cyprus 0-5 Russia
Hungary 1-0 Azerbaijan
Scotland 6-0 San Marino
Estonia 0-3 Germany
Poland 2-0 North Macedonia
Slovenia 0-1 Austria
Wales 1-1 Croatia

Teams who have secured guaranteed Euro 2020 qualification:

Italy
Belgium
Russia
Poland