Van Gaal redeems himself with faith in youth

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Joe Riley wore the smile of a cat that got the cream. Quite right, too, because in making his first appearance for Manchester United, the 19-year-old who worked his way up through the club’s ranks from the age of six lived an experience that boys the world over would give their eye teeth for.

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“Standing at the side, waiting to come on, just wearing your shirt with your name on the back. It’s always something that any lad going through the system is proud to do,” Riley said after his debut 45 minutes as a second-half substitute in a 3-0 victory at Shrewsbury Town in the FA Cup in February.

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“A very good feeling.”

Many United fans, of course, would rather have the here-and-now instant gratification of league and cup silverware. They’re hungry for a return of pulsating entertainment at Old Trafford, not the thin, unappetizing gruel served up too often by United of late.

Still, in the absence of trophies and of coherent, consistent attacking football, the single most redeeming feature so far of Louis Van Gaal‘s two-year tenure as manager has been his heavy use of young players like Riley: born in and around Manchester, hot-housed by the club since they were kids and thrown by the Dutchman into the deep end of first-team football.

This has been both by accident and design. Van Gaal’s history of trusting young players outshines contemporaries such as Jose Mourinho. At Barcelona, the coach gave Xavi Hernandez the first of his record 767 appearances for the club. At Bayern Munich, he made a first-team regular of teenage debutant Thomas Mueller. In striker Marcus Rashford, Van Gaal appears to have unearthed another pearl this season at United.

Cruel accumulations of injuries and, some might argue, a failure to recruit or retain more senior players also forced Van Gaal’s hand. Missing injured first-team players for his first official match in 2014, Van Gaal handed debuts in defense to Tyler Blackett and Jesse Lingard, both from the Manchester area, and promptly lost 2-1 to Swansea.

Riley, born in Blackpool on the northwest coast above Manchester, came on against Shrewsbury because Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, another Manchester-born product of United’s academy fast-tracked by Van Gaal into the first team, was injured in the first half.

But why Van Gaal has done what he’s done is less interesting than the simple fact he has done it at all. In turning to youngsters in tough times, he is perpetuating one of the club’s finest traditions.

In the 1950s, Matt Busby brought though his “Babes” who helped make him a legendary manager. He gave Duncan Edwards his debut at 17. The 18-year-old Bobby Charlton scored twice on his 1956 debut under Busby – a feat that Rashford, also 18, emulated in his first match this February, a Europa League victory against Denmark’s Midtjylland. And Alex Ferguson had his “Fledglings” – David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and others who made fools of those who argued that United wouldn’t win with kids.

So the half-dozen youngsters debuted by Van Gaal this season and those from last season have much to live up to before they will be worthy of their own “Louis’ lads” tag. Van Gaal – or whoever replaces him should United force him out this summer – should continue what he has started, keep giving young players opportunities to deepen the mark they have made, rather than simply shop on the open market for established stars and relegate the next generation to the bench.

That will allow Nicky Butt, a former Fergie Fledgling appointed in February as head of United’s academy, to keep telling parents in all honesty that the club’s pathway for youth remains well and truly open and that their kids might also get to run on the Old Trafford turf one day.

“Our history shows that if you continually let these kids play together, they’ll just get better and better,” said Tony Park, co-author of “Sons of United,” a history of the club’s youth system, and a United season-ticket holder for 25 years.

When one or two young players break through to United’s first team, “the third one thinks he’s next,” Park added. “All of a sudden, everyone thinks they can do it. You get this groundswell of confidence at the next level down.”

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Of course, first-team places must be earned. Long-term, not all the youngsters Van Gaal has tested will be worth retaining. Some have already moved on. But Rashford, certainly, oozes class. By making Wayne Rooney drop back into midfield to accommodate the teenager up front, Van Gaal has sent the encouraging message that age and experience are secondary to talent. Lingard, Borthwick-Jackson and the strapping, athletic Timothy Fosu-Mensah, recruited at age 16 from Ajax, also look promising.

Seeing youngsters in red might not feel as worthwhile as shiny trophies but is still its own reward.

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester

USMNT reportedly opens contract talks with Gregg Berhalter; Good or bad idea?

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Gregg Berhalter may be sticking around the United States men’s national team program, giving the USMNT coaching continuity as it moves from 2022 World Cup Round of 16 member to 2026 World Cup co-host.

ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle says that Berhalter is beginning contract discussions with the United States Soccer Federation but also interested in taking a job in Europe with his profile having risen alongside the USMNT at the World Cup.

Berhalter’s current contract ends at the end of the calendar year, and the Yanks have scheduled a domestic camp in January and friendlies against Serbia and Colombia.

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Berhalter has done some good things for the program, most notably winning the CONCACAF Nations League and Gold Cup with two different groups. He also straightened out the defending, for the most part, and got out of the World Cup group.

Berhalter successfully recruited Sergino Dest and Yunus Musah, two of the program’s stars at the World Cup. He also convinced Malik Tillman, Gaga Slonina, and Jesus Ferreira that the U.S. was the right place for their national team futures.

He also, subjectively, was slow if not downright stubborn in acquiesing to certain points-of-view that made the team better. From Tyler Adams as a right back at the outset of his tenure to saying Tim Ream didn’t fit how he wanted to play about a month before the World Cup… then playing him every minute of the tournament.

But for the most part when lessons were learned, they stayed learned.

Should Gregg Berhalter continue as USMNT boss?

Let’s start here, because it’s necessary: It’s clear that Berhalter cared about his players and the project, whether you like the way he operated or not. This wasn’t a half-assed operation, but one with passion.

So does he still have that passion? Only he can answer that, and if he’d like to get more matchdays in his life then maybe he does want to go back to the club game.

And frankly, that’s fine either way, because his four years with the program were neither amazing nor pitiful. They can be described as anything from a slight disappointment to a minor success, depending on your perspective and expectations.

If you believe that picking up the pieces from the absolute travesty that was failing to qualify for the World Cup from the richest nation and one of the two most talented nations amongst CONCACAF men’s programs was really hard, then you think Berhalter getting the men to the 2022 World Cup and surviving the group with a young group was a solid step in the right direction and a minor success.

If you believe that the American soccer climate is such that you should always make the World Cup out of one of the world’s lesser confederations and that the Yanks progressed as the second team of a group in which they were the second-ranked team according to FIFA and Elo Ratings, well, you can have a different standard.

The Yanks will never again fail to qualify for the World Cup given the expanded field, but hosts have historically had a drastically-improved chance to reach the semifinals. THe federation would have to be confident that picking the best squad regardless of how it reflects on his previous selections — let alone a Best XI — is going to happen under a given coach.

Berhalter’s 49 and is far from the worst or best boss in USMNT history. Whoever’s in the job four years from now will have a chance to go down as either one. Choose wisely, fed. And Gregg! Who knows how far his star could rise with a solid run in Europe, and history says there will be the chance to reconnect with the USMNT job.

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Premier League table, 2022-23 season

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If it’s the 2022-23 Premier League table you’re after, you’ve come to the right place.

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We’re at the 2022 World Cup break, and the final few rounds of Premier League fixtures caused so many shocks.

Who’s looking like title contenders and/or favorites?

Almost at the halfway mark of the 2022-23 season, Arsenal and Manchester City are looking head and shoulders above the rest.

The Gunners will have their hands full for the duration of their title challenge, as Erling Haaland continues to take the Premier League by storm with an almost impossible goal-scoring record.

Newcastle, Tottenham and Manchester United are locked in a battle for the top four, while Liverpool have improved and will be back in the Champions League scrap and Chelsea are struggling.

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Who are the early-season candidates for relegation?

Newly promoted Nottingham Forest moved off the bottom of the table with a win before the break, with Wolves and Southampton currently occupying the other two relegation places.

Leicester have picked up a few big wins, while West Ham, Everton and Leeds all find themselves within a few points of the bottom-three after a topsy-turvy start.

Below you will find the latest Premier League table.


Premier League table – Matchweek 16

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England vs France: How to watch live, stream link, team news

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Match 59 of the 2022 World Cup features a pair of European heavyweights duking it out for a place in the semifinals when England faces France on Saturday.

Didier Deschamps’ France is bidding to become a back-to-back World Cup winner, but Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions are tournament-hardened and have shown their explosive nature three times this tournament.

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France beat Poland 3-1 in its Round of 16 match while England overcame a dodgy start to pound Senegal 3-0.

Neither team can say its faced a test like this in the tournament, and this could be a fantastic fight in Qatar.

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Here is everything you need for England vs France.


How to watch England vs France live, stream link and start time

Kick off: 2pm ET, Saturday, December 1
Stadium: Al Bayt Stadium, Al Khor
TV channels en Español: Telemundo
Streaming en Español: Peacock (all 64 matches)


Key storylines, players to watch closely

England will look to Harry Kane, though the question remains who will flank the Tottenham center forward. Marcus Rashford’s been very good but Bukayo Saka and Phil Foden got the starting spots against Senegal and it paid off for Southgate.

Kylian Mbappe has been borderline unstoppable and will test Harry Maguire, John Stones, and friends and Antoine Griezmann pulls the strings in behind and Aurelien Tchouameni continues to strengthen his reputation in the center of the pitch.


England quick facts

Current FIFA world ranking: 5
World Cup titles: 1 (1966)
World Cup appearances: 15
How they qualified: Qualified automatically from UEFA
Coach: Gareth Southgate
Key players: Harry Kane, Jude Bellingham, Jordan Pickford

France quick facts

Current FIFA world ranking: 4
World Cup titles: 2 (1998, 2018)
World Cup appearances: 15
How they qualified: Qualified automatically from UEFA (Won Group D)
Coach: Didier Deschamps
Key players: Kylian Mbappe, Raphael Varane, Antoine Griezmann

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Croatia vs Brazil: How to watch live, stream link, team news

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World Cup-savvy Croatia stands in the way of stylish Brazil’s pursuit of a sixth World Cup crown, and the pair promise a complex match-up on Friday in Al Rayyan.

Match 58 of the 2022 World Cup kicks off the quarterfinals as Neymar leads Tite’s star-studded CONMEBOL powers into a match against the 2018 runners-up.

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Croatia got past Japan in penalties and will now dream of the two wins that could set it back in the final where France could again be waiting for a juicy rematch.

Croatia needed penalties to get past Japan in the Round of 16, while Brazil pasted South Korea 4-1.  Croatia has never beaten Brazil in four meetings, losing at the 2006 and 2014 World Cups.

[ LIVE: World Cup 2022 schedule, how to watch, scores, hub ]

Here is everything you need for Croatia vs Brazil.


How to watch Croatia vs Brazil live, stream link and start time

Kick off: 10am ET, Friday, December 9
Stadium: Education City Stadium, Al Rayyan
TV channels en Español: Telemundo
Streaming en Español: Peacock (all 64 matches)


Key storylines, players to watch closely

Croatia’s Dominik Livakovic was fantastic in penalties versus Japan to get here, but Luka Modric continues to do the things that get Croatia out of trouble and puts the opponents into heaps of it. Josko Gvardiola has arguably been the defender of the tournament, and the 20-year-old looks to test his mettle again against the Selecao.

Pick a Brazil player who’s failed to impress and you’ve achieved a mighty feat. Neymar’s been fantastic when healthy while RIcharlison is in serious pursuit of the Golden Boot. Alisson Becker flexed his muscles once or twice versus South Korea and figures to be busier as the competition continues to heat up in Qatar.


Croatia quick facts

Current FIFA world ranking: 12
World Cup titles: 0
World Cup appearances: 6
How they qualified: Qualified automatically from UEFA (1st place)
Coach: Zlatko Dalic
Key players: Luka Modric, Andrej Kramaric, Mateo Kovacic, Josko Gvardiol

Brazil quick facts

Current FIFA world ranking: 1
World Cup titles: 5 (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002)
World Cup appearances: 22
How they qualified: Qualified automatically from CONMEBOL (1st place)
Coach: Tite
Key players: Neymar, Thiago Silva, Casemiro, Alisson Becker

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