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.”

source: Getty Images
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.

[VIDEO: Premier League highlights]

“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.”

[RELATED: Latest Premier League standings]

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.”

[RELATED: Premier League schedule]

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.”

Benfica loanee Parks readies for playoffs with NYCFC

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Keaton Parks plays the kind of hard-to-quantify midfield role that sends both stat nerds and eye test takers to a very good place.

Barely 22, the New York City FC midfielder doesn’t stand out in any one particular area. Since arriving on loan from Benfica, the American shuttler (of sorts) ranks near the top of the club rankings in pass percentage and aerials won while chipping in tackles and successful dribbles.

[ MORE: PST talks public pitches, youth development with NYCFC director Reyna ]

He’s averaging near one key pass per game but has just a goal and an assist, due more to his responsibility in Dome Torrent’s system than a particular skill set (He has eight goals and seven assists across two-plus seasons between Varzim and Benfica B).

“In the midfield it really helps to play both sides of the ball,” Parks told ProSoccerTalk. “I take pride in doing that, and I love to make a tackle as much as getting in the attack and assisting or scoring goals. It doesn’t bother me that I’m not scoring or making all of the assists. I like to be the solid player who keeps the balance on the team.”

(Photo by Gualter Fatia/Getty Images)

Parks has been an enigma to American soccer fans for some time in that he’s been in a celebrated club in Benfica but playing in a developmental role that’s near impossible to track without single-minded dedication to Portuguese football (Dramatic? Sure, but you try to catch every Liga Pro game).

But in moving to New York City FC to play under Dome Torrent, he’s had an easier transition than most due to his upbringing with Benfica, which annually ranks amongst the top possession teams in Portugal. Torrent, of course, left his last managerial gig at Girona in Spain to spent a decade-plus on Pep Guardiola‘s staff at Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Manchester City.

“Dome likes to play a possession style, a confident style,” Parks said. “I still have to fight for my spot on the team but the playing style I was used to right away.

“You can see the experience Dome has, and he mirrors a little bit of what Pep does, so it’s been amazing to be able to learn from him and see the experiences of the players he’s been able to coach in his career.”

NYCFC begins its playoff run on Wednesday against Toronto FC at Citi Field in Queens, and Parks says he’s feeling better after missing three matches with injury.

And while he’s focused on the playoffs — “We want to win the Cup and be at the top” — there is a question of what’s next for him, still on the books at a perennial UEFA Champions League club but very important with a CONCACAF Champions League club.

[ MORE: MLS Playoffs preview/predictions ]

“I’m just going to be looking forward to whatever club I’m at next, whether here or back at Benfica or wherever I am and also with the U-23s going into Tokyo next summer.”

He’ll, in theory, be an imperative part to Jason Kreis, ironically a former NYCFC man himself, and the Yanks bid for a first Olympic run in three cycles. The team should be powerful, and Parks is happy.

“I’m definitely excited,” he said. “We have so much talent on the team with guys playing first division all over the world. I believe we can make a run all the way to these Olympics.”
NYCFC and Toronto FC kick off 7 p.m. ET Wednesday at Citi Field.

MLS conference semifinal preview and predictions

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We’re not sure we should be allowed to make Major League Soccer playoff predictions after getting two upset bids wrong in the first round, but we go again anyway.

No, DC United did not outlast Toronto FC at BMO Field nor were the Portland Timbers able to get a win over Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto but… we got the other four right?

[ MORE: Dest choosing side this week ]

It gets trickier at midweek for the conference semifinals, as two of those six victors from the weekend face well-rested one seeds (We suppose they could be rusty, not just well-rested).

NYCFC v. Toronto FC — 7 p.m. ET Wednesday

Regular season:
TFC 4-0 NYCFC (April 29)
NYCFC 1-1 TFC (Sept. 11)

Toronto hasn’t lost since Aug. 3 (5W-6D) and is well-equipped to deal NYCFC’s possession system on a postage stamp pitch. NYC’s only loss in its last 11 was a throwaway loss to a desperate Revolution side in New England. TFC has a lot of experience in spots like this, but Dome Torrent’s done an incredible job with City. It’s a coin toss, but ultimately it feels like that coin lands TFC side up. 2-1 aet.

Seattle v. Real Salt Lake  — 10 p.m. ET Wednesday

Regular season:
Seattle 1-0 RSL (April 6)
RSL 3-0 Seattle (Aug. 14)

This one’s also close, as RSL has a number of players who won’t be bothered by the pressure but man is this home field advantage a real one. The Sounders only lost two home matches this season, and haven’t lost a home playoff match under Brian Schmetzer. Call it 2-0 for Seattle.

Atlanta United v. Philadelphia Union — 8 p.m. ET Thursday

Regular season:
ATL 1-1 Philly (March 17)
Philly 3-1 ATL (Aug. 31)

The Union are resilient, and Jim Curtin seeing success is an absolute joy. So deserved, but Frank De Boer is showing his mettle in making the tough decisions and Ezequiel Barco looks a terror. A side that is able to bring Tito Villalba and Pity Martinez off the bench is unfair. Atlanta, 3-1.

LAFC v. LA Galaxy — 10:30 p.m. ET Thursday

Regular season:
Galaxy 3-2 LAFC (July 19)
LAFC 3-3 Galaxy (Aug. 25)

Can hardly wait for this one. Bob Bradley and Carlos Vela look to send Zlatan Ibrahimovic packing after a riotous summer competition. LAFC is so, so good, and the lack of rest for the Galaxy is a problem. Still, betting against Zlatan seems borderline insane, and Jonathan dos Santos has big game mettle of his own. We’ll call it 2-2 and a place in penalty kicks, where David Bingham’s the difference for the Galaxy in a history-writing upset that takes El Trafico to the next level. Yes, we are predicting for storylines now.

Champions League preview: Chelsea, Liverpool hit the road

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Frank Lampard has a selection headache amongst his wingers as he tries to figure out Chelsea’s best avenue to break down Ajax on Wednesday in the UEFA Champions League.

Youngsters Callum Hudson-Odoi and Christian Pulisic starred in the Blues’ weekend win, and Lampard also has Pedro and Willian available at Johan Cruyff Arena before a weekend visit to Burnley.

[ MORE: Dest choosing side this week ]

From ChelseaFC.com:

“Callum gave me that in his display from the start and Christian gave me that in his display coming on, and in terms of the wingers I have, Willian gave me that, Pedro gives me that so I have good selection problems when people come on and make a difference. That is what we are all about.

“The extra level that is the Champions League, the detail, the focus, concentration for 90 minutes, making the most of tiny moments, will be a test for all the young players, not just Callum.”

The good news for Pulisic in his bid to match wits with fellow USMNT (for now) player Sergino Dest is that he’s had experience on the UCL stage with Borussia Dortmund.

The other PL side in action is Liverpool, and the Reds will be expecting to get all three points in Belgium against Genk.

But Genk drew Napoli 0-0 at home on the second match day and the Reds will be wary of a slip-up.

“It’s a really good football-playing team,” said Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp. “They are organized and brave in their positioning. They don’t play with the pressing line too much but go for second balls, have speed and good midfielders and very active full-backs.”

Klopp will not have Trent Alexander-Arnold (illness) and Joel Matip (knee).

Other highlights…

— American manager Jesse Marsch hopes to lead Red Bull Salzburg to a home win over Napoli when he matches wits with Carlo Ancelotti.

Antonio Conte‘s Inter Milan could really use a result against tricky Borussia Dortmund in Italy.

UEFA Champions League Wednesday schedule

12:55 p.m. ET
Ajax v. Chelsea
RB Leipzig v. Zenit Saint-Petersburg

3 p.m. ET
Slavia Prague v. Barcelona
Red Bull Salzburg v. Napoli
Genk v. Liverpool
Inter Milan v. Borussia Dortmund
Lille v. Valencia
Benfica v. Lyon

Man City’s Guardiola issues Rodri update; Zinchenko also injured

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Man City boss Pep Guardiola expects to be without Rodri for at least a couple of matches after his heavily relied-on midfielder hurt his hamstring on Tuesday.

Rodri was removed from the match after 40 minutes, having partnered with Fernandinho at center back for the second-straight match.

[ MORE: Man City 5-1 Atalanta ]

A center mid and a fine one by trade, Rodri’s absence coupled with the still-hurt Aymeric Laporte leaves City significantly weaker in its heart.

“I think tomorrow we will know and hopefully it will be between 10 days if it is not broken,” Guardiola said. “If it is broken, it will be three weeks or one month.”

The club also announced before the match that Oleksandr Zinchenko had suffered a knee injury and will undergo tests.

City visits Aston Villa this weekend and then hosts Southampton in the League Cup and the Premier League before a visit to Atalanta in the Champions League.

That’s when Liverpool at Anfield arrives on the schedule, and the absence of Rodri would take some of the luster off of it for sure.