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Stats, schedule say Pogba injury would sting

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Paul Pogba may not play Sunday against Swansea City after suffering a thigh injury in Thursday’s 2-1 loss at Fenerbahce in the UEFA Europa League.

This stings in a big way, regardless of how you feel Pogba has played at Old Trafford (more on that later).

United has a brutal run of matches ahead, and badly needs to find its form — with Pogba — on Sunday at Swans.

[ MOURINHO: United played like “summer friendly” ]

The Red Devils have one win in its last four matches, the EFL Cup win over Man City. They dominated Burnley on Saturday but couldn’t find a winner, and really needed six points between that match and Swansea to position itself for a Top Four spot.

STANDINGS

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Manchester City 10 7 2 1 24 9 15 3-2-0 4-0-1 23
 Arsenal 10 7 2 1 23 10 13 3-1-1 4-1-0 23
 Liverpool 10 7 2 1 24 13 11 3-1-0 4-1-1 23
 Chelsea 10 7 1 2 21 9 12 4-0-1 3-1-1 22
 Tottenham Hotspur 10 5 5 0 14 5 9 3-2-0 2-3-0 20
 Everton 10 5 3 2 15 8 7 3-2-0 2-1-2 18
 Watford 10 4 3 3 14 13 1 2-1-2 2-2-1 15
 Manchester United 10 4 3 3 13 12 1 2-2-1 2-1-2 15

United is 7 points off fourth and five off fifth in the Premier League, and its only other recourse to return to the UEFA Champions League would be winning the Europa League.

Of course a team with United’s talent can overcome either deficit, but look at the run the Red Devils face after Sunday’s match at the Liberty Stadium.

Nov. 19 – vs. Arsenal (PL)
Nov. 24 – vs. Feyenoord (UEL)
Nov. 27 – vs. West Ham (PL)
Nov. 30 – vs. West Ham (EFL Cup)
Dec. 4 – at Everton (PL)
Dec. 8 – at Zorya Luhansk (UEL)
Dec. 11 – vs. Spurs (PL)

It gets a lot easier after that, but will it matter if, say, Jose Mourinho can’t deliver at least 10 points in the Premier League through Swansea, Arsenal, West Ham, Everton, and Spurs (three at home)?

Which brings us to Pogba. The 23-year-old French star was expected to revolutionize United’s play, and still probably will, only to find himself the constant target of scorn every time he doesn’t deliver a match-winning play.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 29: Paul Pogba of Manchester United warms up prior to the Premier League match between Manchester United and Burnley at Old Trafford on October 29, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Mark Robinson/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mark Robinson/Getty Images)

When a player’s transfer fee sets a world record, that’s understandable, but Pogba has in fact been quite a good contributor already. As he readapts to the Premier League, Pogba has the following numbers to his credit (PL only):

— He’s completed 525 passes, almost 100 more than his closest competitor (Ander Herrera). He’s also tops in completed passes per game and second in completed passes per 90 (Herrera again).

His 18 key passes are the most on United. That’s tied for 13th in the league with Eden Hazard and Dele Alli.

— The extremely-active Pogba has been involved in the fourth-most duels (79) in the PL.

— He’s played the fifth-most successful through balls in the PL, behind only Alexis Sanchez, David Silva, Philippe Coutinho, and Mesut Ozil.

— Despite constant attention, Pogba is second to only Zlatan Ibrahimovic in shot attempts.

— He also has the fifth-best home passer rating in the Premier League, according to advanced stats site Who Scored.

Positionially, Who Scored has some other encouraging metrics. Pogba’s stats improve the deeper he lies in the midfield, and he’s significantly better at home than on the road in PL play (where United plays three of its next five).

Of course, the eye test matters and Pogba has yet to really dominate a match, but that’s coming. And as longtime United midfielder Bryan Robson pointed out earlier this week, it takes time for any player to adjust to being a big money arrival in a new league. And Pogba has not been awful.

“I think he’s doing okay. But it’s just okay at the moment — we know there is better to come from Paul. He’s a real talented lad and I’m sure when the team start getting a consistent run of good results then his confidence will come on and he will enjoy his football.”

There’s two ways to look at Pogba’s possible absence on Sunday. For one, getting a week of rest could mean two weeks thanks to the international break. And Pogba not pulled out of Thursday’s game with injury after 30 minutes, he may’ve found himself going 90 for the fourth time in 11 days (Ease up, Jose).

But having the chance to sync up with his teammates against a struggling Swansea City could set the table for a terrific and challenging month, and leave little risk of spending two weeks as low as 10th. United has 15 points and a plus-1 goal differential, with Southampton (at Hull) and Bournemouth (vs. Sunderland) capable of joining them on 15 points.

Plus, with Chelsea facing Everton and Spurs taking on Arsenal, three points puts United right back in the mix. That’s achievable without Pogba, but don’t let this slow start to Old Trafford superstardom let you imagine the Red Devils don’t suffer when he’s not available.

Dest decision to stay with the U.S. significant for future

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With the shrill of the referee’s whistle on Friday night, with Sergino Dest expected to be on the field, his decision to play for the U.S. Men’s National Team will be final.

There have been plenty of dual-nationals before him and there will continue to be dual-nationals after him. But Dest’s decision to stay with the U.S. is a significant one for multiple reasons.

First, there’s the whirlwind past six months he’s had. Before the summer began, Dest was a solid member of the Jong Ajax team, which is effectively the reserve side, though it plays in the Dutch Second Division. For the U.S., he started in four of the five games for the U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team as it advanced to the FIFA U-20 World Cup quarterfinals this past May and June, beating France U-20s along the way.

After a strong preseason, suddenly Dest found himself promoted to the Ajax first team. Then, suddenly this then-18-year-old kid was starting for Ajax, first in the Eredivisie and then in the UEFA Champions League, and he was impressing. After not noticing him or not bothering to call him in to national team camps in the past, suddenly Ronald Koeman was interested, and Ajax coach Erik ten Hag was pushing the Oranje on Dest.

While the U.S. has recruited players from Germany, England, and Mexico among other countries in recent years, it’s rare that the player hasn’t been coveted as well by the bigger – or local national team compared to the USMNT. So it says something that the USMNT is such a welcoming place that Dest felt comfortable enough when making his decision to stick with what he knew.

Also, while the Tyler Boyd decision to play for the USMNT wasn’t seen as a huge recruiting coup – he had played in friendly matches for New Zealand in the past – Dest’s decision, considering that he plays at Ajax and gets minutes in the Champions League – is on the level of the Jonathan Gonzalez deal. Gonzalez of course decided to go with Mexico, but due to a loss of form and injuries, that decision hasn’t fully panned out over the past 12 months. Dest, meanwhile, has the opportunity to cement himself as the right or left back of the future for the U.S.

A player this young is usually not put in this position where they have to choose, but Dest – with official FIFA matches coming up – basically had to make his decision this month or risk being out of the USMNT and the Netherlands for multiple training camps.

Ultimately, while Dest’s decision is a great sign for the USMNT, it’s only the start. There’s plenty of American-born players that the USMNT is losing out on, especially to Mexico. Players like Efrain Alvarez, and Gonzalez are two players who could make a difference for the U.S. moving forward, but have chosen – Alvarez for now – to play for Mexico. Other current USMNT youngsters such as Richie Ledezma, Sebastian Soto, Alex Mendez, and Julian Araujo could all potentially play for another country as well, leaving the U.S. vulnerable should they leave.

And another caveat. Dest is only 19-years old, and it’s truly impossible to predict whether he’ll be the next Steve Cherundolo for the USMNT – owned the right back slot for more than a decade – or a short-term fix before an injury or loss of form keeps him away from the team.

So U.S. Soccer is on the right track with the commitment from Dest, but it still has an awful lot to do to keep growing the USMNT player pool.

 

Berhalter: No “like-for-like” replacement for Pulisic

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U.S. Men’s National Team coach Gregg Berhalter may not be feeling any more pressure after the USMNT’s disappointing 2-0 defeat at Canada last month. But his task to beat Canada in the return match on Friday in Orlando became even more difficult with the loss of Christian Pulisic to injury.

Speaking at a pre-match press conference, Berhalter noted that there’s no one on the current USMNT team that could replace exactly what Pulisic brings – excellent dribbling, high soccer IQ, dynamic runs into the box – but they’ll need to compensate for his absence in other ways.

[READ: How will the USMNT line up v. Canada]

“When you think about his dynamic dribbling, you don’t see players like that around very much anymore.,” Berhalter said. “We’ll have to compensate with other types of skills. But what we do have is speed and physically, and we’ll want to take advantage of that. I think that will be a key component of the game.”

Even with Pulisic on the field for around an hour, the U.S. still seemed second-best, but it didn’t help when the USMNT’s best player was taken off. In the current squad, Berhalter will need to look for creativity and darting runs diagonally from players like Tyler Boyd and Jordan Morris on the wings, where they can potentially have an advantage over Canada’s outside backs.

Berhalter noted at the press conference that this week in training they’ve been focusing on bringing the intensity demanded for international soccer, as well as how to better succeed in the attacking third of the field.

“We’ve been working with the wingers, working with the attacking midfielder, having them focused on spaces we need to exploit, and being very aggressive around the penalty box,” Berhalter said. “One thing we weren’t happy with in the game in Canada was our lack of ability to get behind their backline and our lack of ability in the final third to deliver accurate crosses. We got into some good positions and didn’t take advantage of that. So, we focused on that during this week and it’s been looking pretty good.”

In some of the USMNT’s worst games in recent years, including the loss in Couva, Trinidad and Tobago and the loss in Toronto, Canada, it’s been the lack of creativity in the final third, or a lack of even setting up one-v-one opportunities in the final third that’s cost the U.S. That task becomes more difficult without Pulisic, but perhaps the USMNT can take advantage of Morris’ recent fine form, and use his speed down the left to get in behind Canada’s defense.

Sterling backs Gomez after boos were heard at Wembley

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Raheem Sterling came out in support of his teammate Joe Gomez, just a couple of days after Sterling lost his temper in practice and got into a scuffle with the Liverpool defender.

Multiple reporters at England’s 7-0 thrashing of Montenegro heard a smattering of fans boo Joe Gomez when he came on the field as a substitute. While not defensible, the boos were likely as a result of the dust-up and subsequent one-match suspension for Sterling. Unable to speak to the media after the match, Sterling took to Twitter to stand up for his international teammate.

[READ: England smash Montenegro, qualify for Euro 2020]

This is the latest example of Sterling taking the high road to deal with a tough situation. Whether it’s the boos he endures from Liverpool fans over his exit from the club, racism he’s experienced at home or abroad, and the media coverage he’s felt, Sterling has almost always offered a measured, intelligent response.

In this instance, it shows that Gareth Southgate has full control of his team and that there’s an accepting atmosphere in the squad. Sterling was obviously wrong to not let the Man City defeat to Liverpool go and to take it out on Gomez warranted the suspension. To back Gomez after he took some jeers from the crowd says a lot about Sterling’s character.

You can almost bet that the two will be on the field together as England faces Kosovo on the road this Sunday.

Euro 2020 Roundup: Ronaldo scores hat-trick, France, Turkey qualify

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The final two rounds of Euro 2020 qualification got underway on Thursday with plenty of great goals on display. Four nations qualified directly into the tournament as well, as we get closer to the final list of 24 teams.


Portugal rout Lithuania

While the result wasn’t a surprise, it was still an impressive performance from the defending European champions.

Portugal, behind a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick, thrashed Lithuania, 6-0, at the Estadio Algarve. That included this terrific strike into the corner from outside the box, bringing the crowd to their feet.

It was Ronaldo’s ninth hat-trick for Portugal, which takes him to 98 goals overall along with 12 goals for Portugal in this calendar year, an incredible strike rate. Pizzi, Goncalo Paciencia and Bernardo Silva all scored as well. With a win at Luxembourg in three days, Portugal can assure qualification back to the European Championships, where it can defend its crown.


France comes back to beat Moldova

It’s safe to say that Les Bleus fans would gladly have taken a 2-1 result over Moldova in Euro 2020 qualifying, but the journey to get there was definitely out of the ordinary.

Moldova’s Vadim Rata put the visitors up 1-0 in the 9th minute with a goal-mouth scramble after a failed clearance from by Clement Lenglet, putting France under even more pressure. France brought wave and wave of attack towards the Moldova goal, but it was a controversial goal, credited to Raphael Varane, which brought France level.

In the 41st minute, as Olivier Giroud went for a ball, it appeared Giroud motioned to control the ball with his arm, only to move it out of his way at the last second, enabling Varane to head home. Giroud made amends for missing many chances throughout the match with a penalty kick goal in the 79th minute, earned by left back Lucas Digne.

With the win, France qualified for the 2020 Euros. Also qualifying on Thursday was Turkey, England, and the Czech Republic.

Here’s a look at the rest of Thursday’s Euro 2020 qualification results.

Qualification Group A

England 7-0 Montenegro
Czech Republic 2-1 Kosovo

Qualification Group B

Portugal 6-0 Lithuania
Serbia 3-2 Luxembourg

Qualification Group H

Turkey 0-0 Iceland
Albania 2-2 Andorra
France 2-1 Moldova