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Premier League 2016-17 season preview: Manchester United

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The Jose Mourinho era is here, and the embattled Portuguese manager has already found himself faced with a number of major questions in his first days on the job.

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First and foremost, there’s Wayne Rooney. The question: where does Mourinho play the 12-year servant and captain of Manchester United? The question to ask regarding Rooney isn’t “what’s his best position,” but instead “at what position is he actually Man United’s best player?” It’s not striker, where Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the man; it’s not in the hole just behind Zlatan, because Henrikh Mkhitaryan is a pure no. 10; it’s not wide left, because Rooney has never thrived in a wide role, and Anthony Martial is a burgeoning superstar on the left. It might just be in Mourinho’s best interest to drop Rooney to the bench. Mourinho has never been afraid to make the riskiest political move.

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Secondly, can Mourinho, long hailed a tactical genius for the way he organizes defenses, find the right formula among a central-defending quartet of Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo and Eric Bailly? Too many times last season, Louis Van Gaal was forced to play with two dedicated defensive midfielders in order to protect the mistake-prone carousel of characters, which only left the attacking stars disconnected and stranded without service. Outside of Bailly, a $40-million signing from Villarreal, Mourinho and Co. have done little to address the unit transfer-wise.

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United can improve four places from last season, and win the league, because… There’s practically nothing to separate the top five or six sides heading into the season. If one or two results go their way early on, they’ll be great front-runners under Mourinho.

Actually, United could miss out on Champions league qualification altogether, because… There’s practically nothing to separate the top five or six sides heading into the season. If one or two results go against them early on, they’ll be terrible chasers under Mourinho.


Best Possible XI

—– De Gea —–

— Darmian — Smalling — Jones — Shaw —

—– Schneiderlin — Herrera ——

— Mata — Mkhitaryan — Martial —

—– Ibrahimovic —–


Transfers in: Zlatan Ibrahimovic (free, Paris Saint-Germain), Henrikh Mkhitaryan ($34 million, Borussia Dortmund), Eric Bailly ($40 million, Villarreal)

Transfers out: Victor Valdes (released, Middlesbrough), Guillermo Varela (loan, Eintracht Frankfurt), Nick Powell (released, Wigan Athletic)

Last season: Van Gaal’s final season at the club saw the Red Devils finish fifth in the PL; crash out of the Champions League group stage, only to be knocked out of the Europa League by their rivals Liverpool; and cap off the roller-coaster ride by lifting the FA Cup. It was bad enough to see Van Gaal fired, paving the way for the inevitable: Mourinho at Old Trafford.

Source: Manchester United
Source: Manchester United

Star player: Zlatan Ibrahimovic — Finally the big Swede has made his way to the Premier League. Now comes what should be the easy part (for him, at least): delivering on the massive expectations he’ll face at Old Trafford. With any level of competent service, Zlatan will score anywhere between 14-18 goals this season, with a haul of 20 not out of reach if he remains healthy throughout and starts 35 league games. He turns 35 in October, which means his body could break down at any moment, but he showed few signs of slowing down last season, when he made 51 appearances for PSG, scoring 50 goals in the process.

Coach’s corner: Mourinho is the story of United’s season, which is the only way he’d have it. If United are successful, it will all be down to Mourinho’s genius. If they falter and miss out on Champions League qualification again, it’ll be because Mourinho ostracized the wrong players and lost the dressing room, as he infamously did at Real Madrid and Chelsea.

SHANGHAI, CHINA - JULY 21: Manager Jose Mourinho of Manchester United looks on during a press conference as part of their pre-season tour of China at Shanghai Stadium on July 21, 2016 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
(Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

PST predicts: There’s enough attacking talent in this squad for the Red Devils to lead the league in goals scored, but it might all go to waste with Mourinho as manager. Where they’re (still) lacking, though, is in capable central defenders. In theory, Mourinho should aim at a thrilling attacking side that regularly outscores opponents 3-2; it’s what his team is best constructed to do. In practice, he’ll play for 1-0 victories, handicapping their ability to chase the game once they’ve conceded a silly goal, and end up finishing fifth for the second straight season.

USMNT prospect Ledezma earns praise from van Nistelrooy

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Even for talents of the highest levels with top soccer education, sometimes a kid’s gotta learn how to eat.

Richard “Richie” Ledezma, 18, is in the midst of his first year at Eredivisie side PSV Eindhoven, a spot which beckoned after a five-match, one-goal season in the USL with Real Monarchs of the USL.

[ MORE: Chicago adds USMNT hero ]

Ledezma starred for U.S. U-20 team at the World Cup after his first half-season with PSV, which saw him play with the U-19s while trying to lose some weight.

From Goal.com:

“PSV help me with my nutrition, with my food and how I eat. It’s the quantity of food you eat, I guess,” he added. “Because I came a little chubby, when I got here, I guess. They all called me ‘fatty’ and stuff, so I was like, cool, you know? So no more McDonald’s.”

Goal’s James Westwood had a wide-ranging interview with Ledezma and also spoke with soccer royalty: longtime Real Madrid and Manchester United scorer Ruud van Nistelrooy was Ledezma’s coach with the U-19s.

“He’s making a difference in midfield with very quick-thinking passes, movement, can score a goal, play people in, he’s creating chances for the whole team.”

That’s not just good praise from a legend, but a solid sign for fans of the United States men’s national team. A proper No. 10 or playmaking midfielder could allow Gregg Berhalter or another future USMNT coach to use Christian Pulisic on the wings.

Ledezma has some work to do before he breaks into the first team of the Dutch runners-up, who have signed former Stoke City man Ibrahim Afellay and has Gaston Pereiro in the fold as well.

Newcastle reportedly in for $28M mercurial Nice attacker

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L’Equipe says that Newcastle United have returned to Nice in the hopes of landing Allan Saint-Maximin.

The Ligue 1 outfit wants $28 million for the playmaker, who could team up with Miguel Almiron and (maybe) Joelinton to give the Magpies a much-improved attack.

[ MORE: Chicago adds USMNT hero ]

Saint-Maximin, 22, has 10 goals and 10 assists across his last two seasons with Nice, and played everywhere in attack for Patrick Vieira: both wings, center forward, second striker, attacking mid… even some left and right midfield.

The player, however, has been a headache for Vieira at times, with the manager saying Saint-Maximin believes that he has enough talent to reach the highest level without the required amount of work.

That said, the youngster’s skill set is electric. He’s a March birth date, too, so a relatively young 22. That $28 million would be another transfer record broken for Newcastle, assuming it happens ahead of the Joelinton move.

Or… as Newcastle fan knows, neither could go through.

Clark County “declines to prosecute” Ronaldo for rape

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Cristiano Ronaldo will not face sexual assault charges for a June 2009 incident in the United States, attorneys say.

An American woman filed a civil lawsuit against the Juventus superstar last year, claiming that Ronaldo forced himself upon her while she was in a prone position in his hotel room.

[ MORE: Bayern keen on Zaha ]

Ronaldo had expressed belief that he would be cleared of the claims, and claimed that graphic documents produced by German publication Der Spiegel were altered and fabricated.

Las Vegas police issued a warrant in a bid to get Ronaldo’s DNA, and the DA’s office says the woman’s refusal to name her attacker stopped them for collecting “vital evidence.” The woman reached a civil settlement with Ronaldo in 2010.

From News3LV.com:

“Based upon a review of the information presented at this time, the allegations of sexual assault against Cristiano Ronaldo cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” the D.A.’s office said. “Therefore, no charges will be forthcoming.”

Bayern Munich kicking the tires on big Zaha bid

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A sensational report is linking Wilfried Zaha not just with a move away from Crystal Palace, but a move clear of the Premier League altogether.

90min.com says that Bayern Munich has turned to Zaha, having been rebuffed in their pursuit of Manchester City’s Leroy Sane.

Palace wants $100 million for Zaha, but so far has only received a $50 million offer from Arsenal for his services. Reports Monday said Arsenal is upping its bid, and offering a loan of Reiss Nelson as a make-good. Palace has had good Fortune with loans from the big boys of the PL, in particular with Ruben Loftus-Cheek two seasons ago.

A lot of this makes sense for all parties, apart from Sane, and it will be interesting to see if the report brings a bigger bid from the Gunners.

Zaha is a sensational player, and has created chances year-after-year for the Eagles. He wants to taste the Champions League, but Palace is not willing to let him go for (much) less than its asking price given its sale of Aaron Wan-Bissaka to Manchester United.

Bayern will spend less on Zaha than it would on Gareth Bale or Sane, and get a determined player who is very much in his prime. Zaha would also get the chance to showcase himself with actual breathing room on the pitch, thanks to Serge Gnabry, Robert Lewandowski, and others.

And Palace, of course, will end up with between $80-100 million and the knowledge that it won’t need to mark Zaha on a Premier League pitch. More importantly, the money raised from Zaha and Wan-Bissaka will allow them to strengthen at nearly every position (above what they have now, not above AWB and Zaha).