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Premier League preview: Manchester United vs. Stoke City

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  • Man Utd (5th) five points off 4th
  • Stoke (9th) four points off 5th
  • On Boxing Day: Stoke 2-0 MUFC

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As tight as the top of the Premier League table is these days (five points separate four sides), the margins are even narrower a quarter of the way down the ledger, as clubs five through nine are separated by just four points. Tuesday’s clash between Manchester United and Stoke City at Old Trafford (Watch live at 3 p.m. ET, on Live Extra) could go a long way to clearing up the top-five race, or make matters a whole lot messier.

Last time out at Old Trafford, Man United suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Southampton and were subsequently booed off the field at full time. That result, predictably, sent the rumor mill into overdrive with regards to Louis Van Gaal‘s employment. Fast forward 10 days, and the Dutchman is still in charge, though another home defeat could finally spell his end of days. A real positive for United: In his last six games across all competitions, Wayne Rooney has scored six goals, thus giving the previously putrid United attack some measure of potency.

[ MORE: Transfer grades — How did each PL club fare in January? ]

Stoke, meanwhile, have lost three straight across all competitions (one in the PL), even though the results haven’t always matched the performances (more on that from manager Mark Hughes in a moment). Having failed to find the back of the net in 372 minutes (all competitions), the Potters will not relish the challenge of facing a United defense which has conceded just five goals at home all season (fewest in the PL).

On the injury front, United’s back half is currently decimated by injuries, as Phil Jones (ankle), Marcos Rojo (shoulder), Bastian Schweinsteiger (knee), Ashley Young (groin), Antonio Valencia (foot) and Luke Shaw (leg) are all expected to be unavailable. Meanwhile, the Potters will be without Geoff Cameron (ankle), Ryan Shawcross (back) and Charlie Adam (calf), and possibly Marko Arnautovic (hamstring).

What they’re saying

Man United manager Louis van Gaal: “It is important that the fans continue to support the players against Stoke as the players have the most difficult task – they have to get a result at that hour, against Stoke’s resistance and there are no excuses. The fans have to support again.”

Stoke manager Mark Hughes: “I think we’ve got to look to be positive and that’s what we did against Liverpool. We understood what they would do and we were ready for that. The game plan of our own caused them problems. The same will apply to United, we’ll look at areas in which we can be positive and build a performance on that basis. There’s nothing to be fearful or apprehensive of.”

Prediction

This one has “late winner after 75 or 80 minutes of difficult-to-watch soccer” written all over it. Despite the defensive injuries, Van Gaal will set his side up with a clean sheet atop his list of priorities, which essentially guarantees the Red Devils a 0-0 draw at worst. From there, it’ll be up to Rooney and Anthony Martial to conjure up something special to restore a supportive atmosphere at the “Theater of Dreams.” Man United 1-0 Stoke.

Pogba reportedly ready to leave Man Utd; But where would he go?

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Paul Pogba doesn’t intend to be long for Manchester United, according to a report from L’Equipe.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s best player has reportedly told some teammates that he plans to leave the Old Trafford this summer, three years removed from his spectacular return from Juventus.

[ MORE: Solskjaer, Pep trade jabs ]

Rumors of a connection with Real Madrid have persisted, and Pep Guardiola was asked earlier Tuesday about an offer extended the way of Man City (Guardiola vehemently denied it).

Perhaps United does want to move on from the 26-year-old. We’ll play along. Here are a few sensational moves that could make some sense for both player and United.

Real Madrid: Remember 2009? That’s when an aging Real Madrid lost La Liga to Barcelona by nine points, led in scoring by Raul (aged 32), Ruud van Nistelrooy (32), and Gonzalo Higuain (21). They turned to Manchester United for a splashy buy of Cristiano Ronaldo, assuming he had higher levels to reach in his career.

Equating Pogba to one of the greatest players of all-time is silly at this stage, but Real will make some massive splashes this summer (perhaps Eden Hazard, Luka Jovic, and Pogba?). Imagine that trio combining with a healthy Vinicius Junior.

Real could part ways with Raphael Varane, who seems to want to taste the Premier League, and maybe Gareth Bale could also return to the league.

PSG: You though Alexis Sanchez for Henrikh Mkhitaryan was a sexy swap?The fun of such deals continues with one for the ages. Heading to Paris would be French World Cup hero Pogba. Going to United: former rumor mill darling Neymar. To borrow a phrase from Twitter trade prognosticators: Who says no?

Juventus: Given the way teams in Italy tend to extend stars vitality and careers, Pogba’s essentially a baby by their standards. Cristiano Ronaldo has committed to The Old Lady and the club’s fan base is essentially yawning at scudetti. Pogba could form an incredible midfield under Ronaldo, teaming with Miralem Pjanic and Emre Can. The challenge here is the sum of money Juve would have to unload for Pogba, presuming it doesn’t part ways with Paulo Dybala (though Moise Kean is ready for prime time).

Promoter sues USSF over proposed Ecuador match in Florida

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NEW YORK (AP) A promoter has sued the U.S. Soccer Federation, asking a court to order the governing body to sanction an Ecuador league match in Florida.

Relevent Sports filed suit Monday in New York Supreme Court in Manhattan, alleging the USSF illegally denied its application to have Ecuador’s Barcelona and Guayaquil clubs play on May 5 at Miami Gardens, Florida.

[ MORE: Manchester Derby preview ]

The lawsuit quotes USSF policy as stating the governing body’s secretary general “shall grant such sanction unless it is decided by clear and convincing evidence that holding or sponsoring the international soccer competition would be detrimental to the best interest of the sport.”

In a letter sent Monday to Relevent, USSF chief legal officer Lydia Wahlke wrote FIFA “remains opposed to playing official league matches outside the territory of the member association(s) to which the relevant league belongs.”

The USSF issued a statement Tuesday saying it treated the request as a normal application and it asked Ecuador and South American soccer’s governing body about the proposal and never heard back. The USSF pointed out Relevent sued even before the USSF denied the application.

Relevent attempted to stage the first Spanish La Liga match in the U.S., between Barcelona and Girona, at Miami Gardens on Jan. 26. That effort fell through following opposition from the governing body of Spanish soccer, the Real Federacion Espanola de Futbol, and the players’ union, the Asociacion de Futbolistas Espanoles.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Eintracht director: Real will probably get Jovic if they want him

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Eintracht Frankfurt director Fredi Bobic is worried he has little hope of keeping his 21-year-old star striker if Real Madrid really wants him.

Luka Jovic is scoring goal after goal in the Bundesliga and Europa League, the Serbian’s loan from Benfica made permanent by a paltry $8 million exercised in April.

[ MORE: Solskjaer, Pep trade jabs ]

He has 25 goals and seven assists across all competitions, scoring against Inter Milan, Benfica, Marseille, Lazio, Inter Milan, and Borussia Dortmund. He also bagged five goals against Fortuna Dusseldorf, which is pretty good.

So the links to Real Madrid make sense, especially with Zinedine Zidane in search of the next Karim Benzema. Here’s Bobic, from Marca:

“I hope and want him to stay here at Eintracht, but I’m also realistic and know that if a big club like Real Madrid want him then we haven’t got a chance of keeping him.”

The quotes come on the same day that Bayern Munich’s interest in the striker was reportedly mooted, and certainly Eintracht would rather sell to a La Liga club than the Bundesliga stalwarts.

Chelsea fans will get an up-close look at Jovic in the Europa League semifinals early next month. Will the Blues, or anyone else, proffer the sort of money that would allow them to rival Real for Jovic’s affection?

PL Preview: Manchester Derby, Wolves-Arsenal

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All Premier League clubs will have played 35 matches this season following the conclusion of two beautiful Wednesday outings in England.

[ MORE: Watford draws Saints ]


Manchester United v. Manchester City — 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN [ STREAM ]

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer poked the bear, and got a response.

Speaking ahead of Wednesday’s Manchester Derby at Old Trafford, Solskjaer claimed Man City “will snap at your ankles and heels and kick you” upon giving up the ball to opponents ready to counterattack.

City boss Pep Guardiola was not pleased with the comments. From The Manchester Evening News:

“I don’t like it. I don’t like it. No. My team is not built to think and create for that, not at all,” he said, later adding, “Maybe tomorrow in the press conference after the game you can ask him again about that.”

Solskjaer is hoping he won’t spend a second successive post-match ruminating over a grievous loss, as he did following a 4-0 beatdown from Everton on Sunday.

And if responding to its UEFA Champions League exit with a Saturday win over Tottenham Hotspur was satisfying for Guardiola, imagine how revved up he’ll be to reclaim hold on the Premier League crown while completing a season sweep of its local rivals for the first time since 2013-14.

City beat United 3-1 at the Etihad Stadium earlier this season, and is looking to avoid its first league loss at Old Trafford in four tries.

Wolves v. Arsenal — 2:45 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Gold [ STREAM ]

Unai Emery‘s Arsenal heads to the Molineux Stadium hoping its away support is better than the perceived harsh treatment handed to his Gunners in a 3-2 home loss to Crystal Palace on Sunday.

“I say to our supporters, ‘Help our players.’ Because I want every player to have big confidence,” Emery said. “I know there are reactions, and the first reaction is strong. First, when we win they are telling us we are the best, we have a record, we have a possibility to be third in the table – that is good.”

Arsenal would move into the Top Four with a win, but Nuno Espirito Santo‘s Wolves are fighting for a place in Europe themselves. That’s true on two fronts, though it must be said they could have sewn up seventh place with better play in recent weeks.

Wolves have claimed just five of their last 15 available points, including a draw with Brighton and losses to Burnley and Southampton. Even one more win would have them seventh heading into Tuesday.

“There’s no reference to the table, the reference is to grow, to improve game by game,” said Wolves manager Nuno Espirito Santo. “Every game is a chance to improve. We have a fantastic opportunity to become a better team, trying new things, but at the same time trying to make players grow on the idea that we want regarding the future. This is what we focus on until the end, there’s no thinking about the summer or next season, it’s a game by game process.”