Three things learned from Man United’s win v. Chelsea

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MANCHESTER — Manchester United and Jose Mourinho have thrown an almighty spanner into the works of the Premier League title race.

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Just when is seemed like Chelsea were gliding towards the title with a halfhearted charge from Tottenham Hotspur lingering in the background, now Antonio Conte‘s men have seen their lead cut to four points after a clinical and professional display from Mourinho’s United as they beat Chelsea for the first time since October 2012.

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An early goal in each half from Marcus Rashford and Ander Herrera did the damage as United are now unbeaten in 22 games in the PL, the longest unbeaten run in the five major European leagues.

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Here’s what we learned from Old Trafford on a pivotal day in the title race and top four battle.


HERRERA POCKETS HAZARD

It was clear from the very start what Ander Herrera’s job was: stop Eden Hazard. He did.

Lining up as a right back for most of the game, the man who was sent off when these teams met in the FA Cup in March at Stamford Bridge.

Herrera then showed his class on the ball (after he appeared to handle the ball to get the move going but got away with it) to thread through an inch-perfect pass to Rashford who raced past David Luiz and finished calmly and scored the killer second goal. From a man who is dubbed the master tactician around the globe, Mourinho got this spot on and his key antagonizer on the pitch was pivotal to this masterplan.

Mourinho, perhaps more than anybody else, realizes the strengths and weaknesses of Hazard. Hailing him as ready to join Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi among the immortal players on the planet in 2014-15 when the Belgian wizard guided Chelsea to the title under Mourinho, the way in which Hazard struggled last season was a huge factor in Mourinho’s downfall at Stamford Bridge.

It seems like that hasn’t been forgotten as Herrera and Co. hacked Hazard to pieces in United’s 1-0 FA Cup defeat at Chelsea last month, prompting Conte to complain about the targeting of Hazard and saying “this is not football” for him. United did it again on Sunday.

Mourinho is demonized as the “king of anti-football” by most but when he pulls out unpredictable lineups and tactics like this, there are few that can do it better. He’s done it everywhere he’s gone and with United now four points off fourth-place Manchester City with a game in hand their top four hopes remain alive.

From Herrera on Hazard to playing two up front to occupy Chelsea’s back three and then bringing on Michael Carrick to deny Cesc Fabregas who came on as a sub, Mourinho got every single move in his chess game correct. The fact that he did it on Sunday to put a huge dent in Chelsea’s title bid, that’s something which will no doubt make him smirk slightly despite his obvious affinity with the west London club.


TITLE RACE BACK ON

With Chelsea’s second defeat in four games, the title race is well and truly back on.

The gap between second-place Tottenham Hotspur and leaders Chelsea is now just four points with six games remaining for each and Antonio Conte’s men can suddenly feel the pressure. Big time.

It seemed that way on Sunday.

For the first time, Chelsea are facing adversity as Thibaut Courtois went down injured in training this week, while Marcos Alonso hurt his knee in the warm up. Conte had to shuffle his pack with Kurt Zouma coming in and Cesar Azpilicueta moved to right-wing back and Chelsea looked cagey, especially in defense, as the team with the least changes in the PL this season.

During the game Chelsea switched things around to try and recover from a slow start with Victor Moses and Azpilicueta swapping flanks but all of a sudden those wings backs began to look like the square pegs in round holes many thought they were. For most of the season Chelsea have dodged adversity like the plague, with players over-performing and reinventing themselves.

The Blues are still in pole position with six games to go but the manner of their defeat at United, a game where they didn’t have a shot on target, suggests the nerves are starting to show.

When Chelsea face Spurs at Wembley Stadium in the FA Cup semifinal next week there will be more than a place in the FA Cup final at stake.

The momentum is all with Tottenham (seven-straight PL wins) at this point of the season and psychologically Chelsea must respond. With a home game against Southampton and then a trip to Everton, who have won eight in a row at home, coming up in their next two PL outings, Chelsea fans will be feeling anxious no matter how much they sung “we’re top of the league” at Old Trafford to calm their nerves.


RASHFORD COMES OF AGE

It was just over 13 months ago that Marcus Rashford scored his first two goals in the Premier League in a rousing 3-2 win against Arsenal on a Sunday at Old Trafford.

Sometimes we forget just how quick his ascension has been but he gave one of the biggest indicators yet that he is much more than a flash in the pan.

In the past 13 months he’s signed a new contract, scored plenty of important goals for United’s first team, won an FA Cup and EFL Cup, plus went to EURO 2016 with England. It’s been a whirlwind for the 19-year-old and all the time he’s had to handle rising expectations levels as well as Mourinho cajoling him in the press and on the training ground.

He scuffed an early effort wide and nearly got on the end of Jesse Lingard‘s first half cross as his movement was sharp, his pace in-behind worried Chelsea the entire game and with Lingard up top alongside him he had someone to feed off of and had more space to work in. Rashford, who has been wasteful in front of goal in recent weeks, lashed another effort into the side-netting in the second half, plus surged past David Luiz and shrugged off two challenges before Begovic saved. It was his work rate, pace and directness which troubled Chelsea all game long and he got a standing ovation late on as Zlatan Ibrahimovic replaced him.

Ibrahimovic (on the bench for the visit of Chelsea) has stolen the headlines with his 28 goals for United in all competitions this season but his role in Rashford’s development must not be forgotten. Remember that when Rashford takes over Zlatan’s mantle for the next decade at Old Trafford.

WATCH: World Cup, Day 10 — All eyes on Germany

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Many of the favorites in the 2018 World Cup have disappointed, but until Argentina fell 3-0 to Croatia on Thursday, Germany was the only one to suffer a defeat.

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Die Mannschaft fell to Mexico in their opening match, with El Tri carving up the German midfield on the counter. Now, Joachim Low has had ample time to make the adjustments needed to go for victory as the Germans take on Sweden as they chase a spot in the knockout stages among Group F.

Meanwhile, Mexico looks to prove they’re not a one-hit wonder as they take on South Korea in Rostov. Juan Carlos Osorio has received plenty of praise – and rightly so – for his tactics in the upset victory, and that leaves El Tri with a chance to clinch a spot in the knockout stage with a win.

Before all that Group F craziness, Belgium takes the field in the morning against Tunisia as they look to follow up its comprehensive 3-0 victory over Panama in the opening round. A victory for the Red Devils would not only book a place in the knockout round, but also eliminate Tunisia from contention.

Below is Saturday’s schedule in full.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


2018 World Cup schedule – Saturday, June 23

Group F
South Korea vs. Mexico: Rostov-on-Don, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
Germany vs. Sweden: Sochi, 2 p.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group G
Belgium vs. Tunisia: Moscow, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Kluivert junior leaves Ajax for Roma in $21m transfer

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ROME (AP) — Roma signed Justin Kluivert, the son of former Milan and Barcelona forward Patrick, from Ajax on Friday for a fee that could rise to 18.75 million euros ($21.8 million).

The 19-year-old Dutch international forward has agreed a five-year contract with Roma.

“I’m very happy. I’m at an incredible club,” Kluivert said. “I cannot wait to start. I believe that Roma is the ideal team for my growth, which will allow me to play at the highest levels.”

Kluivert junior made 56 appearances and scored 13 goals for Ajax. He has one cap for the Netherlands.

He joins Roma for an initial 17.25 million euros ($20.1 million) and performance-related clauses could see the price rise by 1.5 million euros.

Ricketts family, owner of the Chicago Cubs, interested in purchasing AC Milan

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The Ricketts family, who purchased a controlling stake in the Chicago Cubs back in 2009, have interest in further pursuing ownership in financially troubled Italian club AC Milan.

According to a family statement, “The Ricketts family brought a championship to the Chicago Cubs through long-term investment and being great stewards of the team … They would bring this same approach to AC Milan.”

First reported by the Chicago Tribune, the news of the Tom Ricketts’ interest in the team comes on the heels of news that current owner Li Yonghong had failed to meet a Friday deadline for a $37 million loan payment. According to reports, the missed payment means that Li will cede control of the club to Elliott Management, who loaned the Chinese businessman the money to complete his initial purchase of the club last April.

The Chicago Sun-Times also reported the family’s interest in the club, and quoted their source as saying, “The Ricketts put together the management team, resources and training facilities [for the Cubs]. [They did] everything you need top to bottom to be successful.”

Ricketts has plenty of history in soccer ownership, having previously been a part of the group that owned English club Derby County before selling back in 2015. This May, Ricketts also announced he was leading an investment group that is looking to bring a USL expansion team to Chicago.

Forbes values AC Milan at $612 million – a massive 26% 1-year decline – and ranks them the 17th most valuable soccer club in the world. That valuation could be further on the decline, as the storied club missed out on Champions League qualification for the fifth straight year, although they qualified for their second straight Europa League appearance with 6th place finish in last year’s Serie A table, eight points behind Lazio in fifth.

AC Milan also faces heavy sanctions from UEFA regarding Financial Fair Play, although those fears could be eased with the financially-troubled Li selling the club.

The Ricketts family’s wealth comes largely from investment banking, with Tom’s father J. Joseph Ricketts having founded Ameritrade back in 1975. Tom is estimated by Forbes to be worth $1 billion, while his father has an estimated net worth of $2.1 billion.

Xhaka, Shaqiri display controversial goal celebrations in win over Serbia

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A seemingly innocuous goal celebration performed by both Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri has thinly veiled, politically charged undertones and could potentially land the pair in FIFA disciplinary proceedings following Switzerland’s 2-1 win over Serbia.

Both displayed a bird hand signal as they celebrated scoring goals, and considering their pre-match comments, post-match social media posts, and ethnic backgrounds, those were clearly meant to represent the double-eagle symbol in the middle of the Albanian flag.

This is a complicated political scenario, but it could be considered by FIFA to be politically provocative. Shaqiri is Albanian, born in Kosovo before moving to Switzerland with his parents and three siblings when he was just a year old. Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008 and is not recognized as a sovereign nation by Serbia. Xhaka is of Albanian descent, and his father previously participated in a demonstration against the communist Yugoslavian rule in Kosovo that landed him a lengthy jail sentence. Albania and Serbia have a particularly tumultuous relationship, with their leaders meeting for the first time in over 60 years in 2014, which caused tempers to flare.

Following the match, Xhaka posted a picture of his celebration on his Instagram story, with the caption in Albanian roughly translated to, “Here you go Serbia, this is why they call me Granit Kosovo!” He deleted the post, and replaced it with an image of his celebration side-by-side with Shaqiri’s, with the slightly more cryptic caption, “We did it, bro!” in English.

FIFA is wildly against any type of political demonstration or involvement in the world of soccer. The governing body has punished individual nation federations in the past for government involvement, while political demonstrations on the field are fiercely frowned upon.

Switzerland captain and new Arsenal signing Stephan Lichtsteiner came to the defense of his two teammates after the match. When asked about the celebrations, he said to Goal.com, “We had a lot of pressure, it was not an easy game for us. We have a lot of Albanians, so there is a lot of history between Serbia and Albania. It was a very tough game for them mentally.”

“It was good. Why not? This is the history for them,” Lichtsteiner continued. “The war between them was so difficult. I spoke to the father of one of our players who is Albanian, and he told me about this history. This is more than football. This is more than football because they have this period, this war that gave them both big problems. I understand them. I think it’s normal, it’s part of their life. There was also big provocation ahead of the game from them [Serbia], so I think it’s normal.”

Shaqiri could be in especially hot water. The Stoke City midfielder wore boots with the flags of Switzerland and Kosovo. He has made it clear in the past that he values his roots, saying, “I was born in Kosovo, but I grew up in Switzerland. I live both mentalities, it’s not a big difference.”

Switzerland finishes its World Cup group stage round with a match against Costa Rica on Wednesday in which a win would secure a spot in the knockout stage.