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Often derided, Fellaini finally feels some love at United

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MANCHESTER, England (AP) There was only one place Marouane Fellaini was heading after scoring the goal that put Manchester United in a dominant position in the League Cup semifinals.

And it wasn’t to the United fans who have jeered him in recent weeks.

Instead, Fellaini zeroed in on the man who has shown faith in him during the tough times. Jose Mourinho was pumping his fists in the technical area when he was met with the full force of a charging Fellaini and his trademark afro.

[ MORE: Arsenal’s new non-league LB ]

The United manager tumbled backward before putting his arms around the midfielder as they embraced. Minutes later, Fellaini’s name was being sung around Old Trafford.

“He changed the dynamic and the empathy with the fans,” Mourinho said.

Fellaini’s first goal of the season was important, not just because it sealed a 2-0 win for United against Hull on Tuesday in the first leg of the semifinals. The bear-hug celebration showed the togetherness and improving bond between Mourinho and his players, a factor that cannot have helped but aid United during its current run of nine straight victories in all competitions.

You have to go back nearly four years – before United’s miserable years under David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal – to a similar display of emotion, when Robin Van Persie ran along the touchline and embraced Alex Ferguson after scoring a match-clinching penalty against Stoke in April 2013 as United closed in on the Premier League title.

There was more of a personal element to Fellaini’s reaction.

[ MORE: Schneiderlin to Everton ]

A month ago, the Belgium international was booed by sections of Old Trafford – not for the first time – as he warmed up as a substitute late in the second half of United’s win over Tottenham. That was chiefly because a week earlier, he had come on as a late sub against Everton and conceded a penalty that was scored to deny United victory.

Yet there’s also the feeling that United fans just haven’t warmed to a player who is associated, rightly or wrongly, with the most difficult period in the club’s recent history.

Fellaini was one of Moyes’ first signings in the immediate post-Ferguson era and has never appeared a natural fit for United, whose success since the early 1990s was based on fluid, attacking and entertaining football. Getting the best out of Fellaini – a tall midfielder with a strong aerial presence – requires a more direct and pragmatic style, which is why he thrived at former club Everton.

He was nevertheless valued highly by Moyes and Van Gaal, and was therefore a regular starter under them. Under Mourinho, Fellaini has had less game time, especially since November when United has generally gone with a midfield of Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba.

Fellaini is now regarded as a Plan B, a player to throw on in the final minutes to cause damage with his height and physicality. His crucial goal against Hull came via that route, with Matteo Darmian floating over a left-wing cross that Fellaini met with a looping header over the goalkeeper.

“I’m here to support the players, especially the players in a difficult situation,” Mourinho said of Fellaini. “But he has a very strong mentality, he coped well with the situation, he was not afraid the next match after Everton to go to the pitch again.

“He is always supported by myself,” Mourinho added. “He knows he is a very important player for me.”

Mourinho likes to have physically imposing players in his team. He had them at Chelsea and immediately after joining United, he signed Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Eric Bailly – all players with a presence.

Given Fellaini’s characteristics, the midfielder could have a vital role to play for United in the second half of the season.

Red-hot Rebić scores again as AC Milan tops Torino

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MILAN (AP) Ante Rebić kept up his scoring form to lead AC Milan to a 1-0 win over struggling Torino in Serie A on Monday.

The Croatia international beat his marker to redirect a cross from the center of the area midway through the first half at the San Siro.

The score raised Rebić’s tally to six goals and an assist in eight matches since he earned his starting spot – a move that coincided with Zlatan Ibrahimović’s return to the Rossoneri.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

Bouncing back from a derby loss, Milan moved up to eighth and just beyond the Europa League places. The seven-time European champion is hoping to return to continental competition after voluntary withdrawing from this season’s Europa League to pay for UEFA financial fair play breaches.

Torino, meanwhile, lost its fifth straight, with new coach Moreno Longo still unable to turn things around in his second match in charge.

Ibrahimović narrowly missed a curling shot shortly after the break.

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

Simeone: Liverpool intensity “makes me admire it as a rival”

UEFA Champions League
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The UEFA Champions League returns at long last on Tuesday, and two of the greatest managers in the game will match wits for the first time.

No we’re not talking about Lucien Favre and Thomas Tuchel, the meeting of the minds in Tuesday’s other kickoff between Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain in Germany.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp will go head-to-head with Atletico Madrid’s Diego Simeone in Spain, and the fiery German thinks it will be “absolutely interesting.”

From The Liverpool Echo:

“People say I emotional on the sideline,” Klopp said. “I am only on level 4, Diego is level 12. Really I am the kindergarten cop against him. He is so impressive after all these years, after so many years at the club – eight years. That is really long and having still this emotional level, still, wow. So impressive. I say, his teams are always organized world class.”

The admiration is mutual.

Simeone expects a huge challenge from a Liverpool team he regards on a historic plane.

“We are facing a magnificent team, really well-trained by a coach who is different and has different alternatives in his team,” he said, via The Independent. “We have always spoken about great teams throughout time and I have no doubt this Liverpool is going to go down in history as a great team because it is different to teams that we have admired. This team is much more intense, more adaptable, and it makes me admire it as a rival.”

The bettors say Liverpool is the heavy favorite in the first leg despite the match’s location at the Wanda Metropolitano. With football geniuses like Klopp and Simeone, however, either could have a plan to throw the other for a loop.

CONCACAF Champions League preview: Five MLS sides eye history

CONCACAF Champions League preview
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Once the Premier League and La Liga had taken their final bows of the day on Saturday, there felt was a particular absence, one soon-to-be filled by domestic soccer.

Yes, MLS is coming soon, and the CONCACAF Champions League is even closer.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

Five MLS sides begin their Round of 16 ties over the next three evenings, some with easier paths than others to elusive CCL glory.

The competition may not have burned itself onto the mainstream, lagging behind continental competitions in Europe and South America, but those who’ve embraced it (hint: this guy) love the thing.

For all the progress Major League Soccer has made in its quarter-century, it’s yet to find much success in dealing with Liga MX powers in the fight to qualify for the Club World Cup.

MLS sides have not won the competition since it was rebranded the CCL. Only three MLS sides have made the CCL final this decade, with Real Salt Lake (2011), Montreal Impact (2015), and Toronto FC (2017) all coming up short at the last step.

The CCL provides everything you love and hate about World Cup qualifying, and those dicey pitches with sometimes worse lighting mean the favorites aren’t guaranteed much.

The top half of the bracket sees three MLS teams — Montreal, Seattle, and NYCFC — and just one Liga MX side, while the bottom half gives us a Liga MX v. MLS match-up straight away.

That’s Leon v. LAFC, and it begins Tuesday night in Mexico. That tie carries the added intrigue of MLS superstar Carlos Vela bringing his act back to his home country for the first time… ever.

Bracket

Saprissa (Costa Rica) v. Montreal — 8 p.m. ET Weds.
Olimpia (Honduras) v. Seattle — 10 p.m. ET Thurs.

San Carlos (Costa Rica) v. NYCFC — 8 p.m. ET Thurs.
Alianza (El Salvador) v. UANL Tigres — 8 p.m. ET Weds.

Leon v. LAFC — 10 p.m. ET Tues.
Portmore United (Jamaica) v. Cruz Azul — 8 p.m. ET Tues.

Comunicaciones (Guatemala) v. Club America — 10 p.m. ET Weds.
Montagua (Honduras) v. Atlanta United — 10 p.m. ET Tues.

The 2 Robbies podcast: VAR carnage at Stamford Bridge

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Robbie Mustoe and Robbie Earle dissect a crazy game at Stamford Bridge that saw Chelsea on the wrong side of several VAR decisions (00:45).

The gents also recap the big moments from the weekend; Liverpool beat Norwich (18:30), Son’s late winner against Aston Villa (24:45) and Arteta‘s attackers thrash Newcastle United (30:15).

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

To listen to more lively conversations and passionate debate from Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe, subscribe to The 2 Robbies Podcast on Apple Podcasts or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

And you can follow them on Twitter @The2RobbiesNBC here.

Click here for The 2 Robbies archive ]