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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.

Reina faces hearing over links with trio connected to mafia

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ROME (AP) Outgoing Napoli goalkeeper Pepe Reina has been summoned to a hearing at the Italian football federation over his association with people with links to the mafia.

Reina, along with Paolo Cannavaro and Salvatore Aronica, is to face the FIGC’s disciplinary committee after an investigation by Naples’ anti-mafia department.

It is reportedly one of the reasons why Napoli decided not to renew Reina’s contract, with the former Liverpool goalkeeper set to move to AC Milan on a free transfer.

The FIGC says Reina “has had and continues to have inopportune association and friendship with Gabriele Esposito, Francesco Esposito and Giuseppe Esposito.” It adds that that includes holidays and “an exchange of favors.”

Cannavaro, who had two spells with Napoli, retired at Sassuolo last year. Aronica also spent several years at the southern club before joining Palermo in 2013.

Iran names initial squad for World Cup

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TEHRAN, Iran (AP) Jalal Hosseini and Vouria Ghaffouri have both been left off Iran’s provisional 24-man squad for the World Cup.

Iran coach Carlos Queiroz did not say why Hosseini, a Persepolis defender, and Ghaffouri were not included.

There was space for midfielders Masoud Shojaei and Ehsan Hajsafi, however. Both played with Greek club Panionios against Maccabi Tel Aviv in August 2017. Iran does not recognize Israel and its supreme leader has threatened the country in the past. Both Shojaei and Hajsafi missed matches with the national team after the game.

Alireza Jahanbakhsh, a 24-year-old forward who plays in the Netherlands with AZ Alkmaar, is also in the squad, which was announced Sunday.

In the midfield, Queiroz chose Saeid Ezatolahi, although the Amkar Perm player will miss the team’s first World Cup match because he was given a red card in a game against South Korea in qualifying.

Nottingham Forest midfielder Ashkan Dejagah was also chosen.

Goalkeeper Amir Abedzadeh of Portuguese club Maritimo made the squad. His father, Ahmadreza Abedzadeh, was Iran captain and goalkeeper at the 1998 World Cup in France.

Iran will play in Group B at the World Cup with Portugal, Spain and Morocco. The team will play warm-up matches in Turkey and Greece before heading to Russia.

Goalkeepers: Alireza Beiranvand (Persepolis), Rashid Mazaheri (Zob Ahan), Amir Abedzadeh (Maritimo)

Defenders: Ramin Rezaeian (KV Oostende), Mohammad Reza Khanzadeh (Padideh), Morteza Pouraliganji (Al Saad), Pejman Montazeri (Esteghlal), Seyed Majid Hosseini (Esteghlal), Milad Mohammadi (Akhmat Grozny), Roozbeh Cheshmi (Esteghlal)

Midfielders: Saeid Ezatolahi (Amkar Perm), Masoud Shojaei (AEK Athens), Mehdi Torabi (Saipa), Ashkan Dejagah (Nottingham Forest), Omid Ebrahimi (Esteghlal), Ehsan Hajsafi (Olympiakos), Vahid Amiri (Persepolis), Saman Ghoddos (Ostersunds FK), Ali Gholizadeh (Saipa)

Forwards: Alireza Jahanbakhsh (AZ Alkmaar), Karim Ansarifard (Olympiakos), Mahdi Taremi (Al-Gharafa Sports Club), Sardar Azmoun (Rubin Kazan), Reza Ghoochannejhad (SC Heerenveen)

Six Premier Leaguers named to Argentina, but no Icardi

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Argentina’s World Cup roster features a number of the usual suspects, particularly up front, but Serie A’s top goalscorer has been surprisingly left off the list of 23.

[ MORE: Belgium goes to World Cup without Nainggolan ]

Manager Jorge Sampaoli’s squad was made official on Monday, which includes the likes of Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain.

The Albiceleste won’t be taking Inter Milan striker Mauro Icardi though, which has raised some questions about the decision.

Icardi led all scorers in Italy’s top flight this season, scoring 29 goals in 34 Serie A matches, while Paulo Dybala edged out the final striker spot in the Argentina squad.

Dybala is teammates with Higuain at Italian giants Juventus.

Meanwhile, six Premier League players were named into the South American nation’s squad, including goalkeepers Sergio Romero (Man United) and Willy Caballero (Chelsea), as well as Nicolas Otamendi (Man City), Marcos Rojo (Man United) and Manuel Lanzini (West Ham).

Men in Blazers POD: FA Cup recap, UCL final preview and more

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Rog and Davo recap a spite-fueled, snear-filled, peak Phil Jones FA Cup Final, preview this weekend’s Champions League tilt between Liverpool and Real Madrid and eulogize Big Sam… gone the opposite of too soon. Plus, World Cup rosters and MLS.

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