Three things learned: Man United v. Liverpool

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MANCHESTER — Manchester United beat Liverpool 2-1 at Old Trafford on Saturday, as Jose Mourinho secured just his second win in nine outings against Jurgen Klopp.

The Red Devils strengthened their grip on second-place in the Premier League thanks to two first half goals from Marcus Rashford and despite Eric Bailly‘s own goal and an improved displays in the second half, Liverpool fell.

Here’s what we learned from a gripping game as each team dominated a half.


RASHFORD TAKES HIS CHANCE

The local lad stepped up big time to deliver two goals in the first half and grab his chance with both hands.

Rashford probably wouldn’t have started had Paul Pogba not pulled out through injury on Friday, with Mourinho forced into a reshuffled with Rashford on the left, Mata on the right and Alexis Sanchez playing centrally behind Lukaku with just Scott McTominay and Nemanaja Matic in central midfield in a 4-4-2 formation.

We all know Rashford has bags of pace and undoubted talent, but you feared for his development after the arrival of Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez this season. We shouldn’t have worried.

Rashford now has eight goals in the Premier League this season and 12 in all competitions, that’s the best return of his career to date. Not bad for a youngster pushed out to the left flank for most of this season when he does most of his best work as a central striker.

It was almost two years ago today that he burst onto the scene and scored twice against Arsenal in a 3-2 home win after being given his chance by Louis Van Gaal. And the stat above shows that Rashford can always be counted on for the big occasion.

Since then, Rashford has scored 31 goals in 111 appearances for the Red Devils and he is finally showing that there could be life for him on the left ahead of Sanchez, Anthony Martial, Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard and others.


LUKAKU, SANCHEZ PARTNERSHIP WAY FORWARD

Yes, Pogba’s injury may have forced Mourinho into a change of lineup and personnel, but one thing is clear from Saturday: play Sanchez and Lukaku together up to from here on out.

Before the game all of the talk was about how United could slot Sanchez into their starting lineup and Mourinho admitted they haven’t seen the best of their highest-paid player since his arrival from Arsenal in January. Don’t get me wrong, Sanchez still has a long way to go. He gave the ball away in the second half on multiple occasions when all he needed to do was relieve some pressure on his defense, with the Chilean still looking rusty in possession just as he did on Monday at Crystal Palace when he had more giveaways than any other player on the pitch.

As for Lukaku, well, he is back in midseason form. The Belgian flicked on twice to set up Rashford’s goal and a more direct approach is suiting Lukaku.

During the week Lukaku described himself as a sergeant for Mourinho on the pitch. He did his part admirably on Saturday with his powerful display in the first half. He and Sanchez scared Liverpool’s defense and allowed Mata to find space for what should have been an easy third goal had he headed home instead of gone for the spectacular bicycle kick.

This duo will cause plenty of defenses problems and there’s an inclination that playing just off Lukaku will get the best out of Sanchez.


LIVERPOOL’S FAMILIAR PROBLEMS ARISE

They almost fought back for a point, but it was a case of familiar problems arising for Liverpool. They’ve only lost two of their last 21 games in the Premier League and are still in the hunt for the top four, but this defeat means they’ve fallen five points behind rivals Man United who sit comfortably in second place.

A sluggish start was their downfall as Jurgen Klopp’s men lost the first ball to Lukaku and failed to stop Rashford twice latching on to score. They also couldn’t work out how to mark Sanchez and Mata was drifting in from the right.

On multiple occasions in the first half United breezed through Liverpool’s defense and when Dejan Lovren and Virgil Van Dijk finally figured out how to stop United, they were already 2-0 down.

Liverpool’s clash showed in the second half as they dominated the majority of the 45 minutes with Eric Bailly’s own goal setting up a tense finish for the home fans at Old Trafford.

The Reds will now regroup and they know they have the easiest schedule out of the teams in and around the top four. Still, a defeat at your rivals in this manner will sting.

Report: Man City could use Gabriel Jesus to get Rodri

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At the root of this report is a question to which we don’t know the answer: How highly does Pep Guardiola rate Gabriel Jesus?

A report from Spanish outlet AS says Guardiola could use his young striker to lure Atletico Madrid into a swap deal, landing Manchester City their stirring defensive midfielder Rodri.

[ MORE: Players to watch at U-20 World Cup ]

Rodri is a nearly year older than 22-year-old Jesus, and is more instrumental to his current club. One of Atletico Madrid’s top talents, his $78 million release clause is an obvious route for City.

If Guardiola doesn’t see Jesus as a huge part of the club’s future, however, the manager may be able to go nearly like-for-like money-wise.

Jesus scored nearly every other game for City in all competitions, nabbing 21 goals in 47 matches, and has 13 goals in 27 caps for Brazil. Those are good numbers, especially with still-electric Sergio Aguero turning 31 this summer.

At his relatively tender age, Jesus has appeared 100 times for Man City and his 45 goals are made more impressive by less than 5600 total minutes in those matches.

Giving up on him to complete his midfield is a tough one. We think it’s more likely Guardiola pays the release clause… unless the manager simply doesn’t rate the player.

Players to watch at the U-20 World Cup

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The U-20 World Cup begins this week in Poland, and there are a bevy of future stars to watch, as well as several who will make their names during the tournament.

We’ll focus on the former. While England’s failure to qualify somewhat limits the Premier League starlets on show, there are still plenty from the English top flight.


Tim Weah, United States (PSG) — After a loan at Celtic and time with the full USMNT, how much can he dominate back in his age group?

Alban Lafont, France (Fiorentina) — At age 20, he’s already the starter between the sticks for his Serie A mainstays.

Diego Lainez, Mexico (Real Betis) — Eighteen with 12 league appearances for Real Betis, Lainez is a massive part of El Tri‘s future and carries four caps to his name.

Ruben Vinagre, Portugal (Wolves) — Wolves were promoted, and Vinagre actually made eight more appearances (17) than he made in the Championship.

Ezequiel Barco, Argentina (Atlanta United) — His sophomore season for the Five Stripes has been better than his debut campaign, though that’s not saying a ton given the hype.

Evan N’Dicka, France (Eintracht Frankfurt) — Plenty of playing time in the Bundesliga at the age of 19 for this towering center back.

Paxton Pomykal, United States (FC Dallas) — Looking good in MLS. How much should that translate on this stage?

Andriy Lunin, Ukraine (Real Madrid) — Won’t be wearing the white of Madrid in meaningful action any time soon, but made four appearances on loan for Leganes as a 20-year-old.

Sebastian Soto, United States (Hannover 96) — Not the American-born Bundesliga starlet we expected had we created this list months ago, but Soto has made his Bundesliga debut, so there’s a lot to like while Josh Sargent works with the full USMNT.

Dan Zagadou, France (Borussia Dortmund) — The left- and center back has 25 first team appearances for BVB at 19.

Diogo Dalot, Portugal (Manchester United) — Red Devils supporters know about this fella, who was purchased under the watch of Jose Mourinho last summer.

Mickael Cuisance, France (Borussia Monchengladbach) — Took a step back after his blockbuster ‘Gladbach breakthrough in 2017-18, but will be a key piece for the favorites.

Moussa Sylla, France (Monaco) — The winger is already a factor for AS Monaco, even if they struggled this season.

Bonus: Erling Håland, Denmark (Red Bull Salzburg); Ronald Araujo, Uruguay (Barcelona); Tom Dele-Bashiru, Nigeira (Manchester City).

De Ligt reportedly chooses Barcelona; Klopp set at CB

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Liverpool, Manchester United, and pretty much everyone but Barcelona looks set to miss out on Matthijs de Ligt.

De Ligt, 19, has paired with Liverpool’s Virgil Van Dijk while in the Netherlands national team set-up, but reportedly is opting to join Ajax teammate Frenkie de Jong at Barcelona.

[ MORE: Brighton hires new boss ]

In the case of Liverpool, Sky Sports says that Reds boss Jurgen Klopp thinks he doesn’t need another center back.

Injuries hit Liverpool’s center backs this season outside of Van Dijk. Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren were rated highly and combined for just over 2500 minutes, while young Joe Gomez suffered a long-term injury midway through the season.

If all are healthy, Liverpool has decent depth. Yet even Gomez doesn’t have the upside to shake a stick at De Ligt if the 19-year-old was truly interested in coming to Anfield.

I mean, “Are you interested in this 19-year-old captain of a Champions League semifinalist? He’s interested in coming there” usually doesn’t yield a firm, “No.”

As for Barcelona, it will reinforce its back line a year after allowing 36 goals. That’s pretty decent, but the Blaugranas‘ third-highest total of the last decade.

Mkhitaryan assured of safety by Azerbaijan ambassador

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The Europa League Final in Azerbaijan has not been getting a lot of positive press due to fans unwillingness to travel for the event and Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s fears of stepping foot in the country.

That’s because Mkhitaryan is the captain of Armenia’s national team, and that nation’s long dispute with Azerbaijan.

[ MORE: Brighton hires new boss ]

Arsenal, of course, plays Chelsea in the May 29 final, and Mkhitaryan already missed an earlier UEL match against Azerbaijan powers Qarabag. He’s played plenty for the Gunners this season apart from a broken foot, and his absence would not be welcome news for this London Derby of a European Final.

Azerbaijan’s UK ambassador Tahir Taghizadeh has guaranteed safety for Mkhitaryan, and said he’d be happy to personally offer assurances to the Armenian. On the other hand, this doesn’t sound like the most positive messaging, via Sky Sports:

“My message to Mkhitaryan would be: you’re a footballer, you want to play football? Go to Baku you are safe there, if you want to play the issue then that’s a different story. What I can guarantee is that the Azerbaijan government will do everything what needs to be done and provide safety and security for every fan, player and staff member coming to this game.”

By using the phrase “play the issue,” it does launch the discussion firmly into political waters. One thing’s for sure: The issue may be debatable, but whether a player feels safe deserves to be his call and his call alone.