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Three things: NYCFC flying with Villa, Medina at the helm

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Week 2 of the 2018 MLS season is in the books, and New York City are one of just four teams with six points following Sunday’s 2-1 victory over the LA Galaxy.

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Earlier today, I advocated against making any judgments whatsoever about the MLS season before the calendar reads May or June. Barely two hours later, I’m ready to ignore my own advice and tell you that NYCFC are very, very good — largely based upon the entirety of 2017, but also the way they’ve kicked off the 2018 season…

[ MORE: MLS 2018 season previews ]

Medina lessens the blow of losing Harrison

Jack Harrison was, in so many ways, a perfect complement to David Villa, in that he was only slightly less aggressive and quick to transition than the legendary Spaniard. He was an abundant source of secondary goals — a must-have for every team, even ones with a Villa-caliber spearhead.

Everyone was, understandably, unsure how NYCFC would replace Harrison’s final-third production following his transfer to Manchester City. It was a big ask for 20-year-old Paraguayan attacker Jesus Medina to walk straight into an established squad and immediately shoulder the load as Villa’s primary running mate. Through two games, Medina has surpassed expectations by miles and miles.

He scored a goal against Sporting Kansas City last week, and was instrumental in setting up both goals against LA. On the first, it was Medina who got the ball wide right, held up play ever so slightly to allow Villa to move ahead of him, and finally slotted the perfectly timed and weighted through ball to the top of the six-yard box. Villa’s shot was saved, but the rebound came to Anton Tinnerholm, who smashed his left-footed shot off the underside of the crossbar and in.

On the second, it was Medina, alongside Ben Sweat, who chased a bouncing ball deep inside NYCFC’s half and eventually won possession, then turned on the jets as he glided around one defender before playing the pass to present itself, a simple square ball to Sweat at the top of the box. Again, Sweat’s shot was saved, but the rebound fell to Villa with an empty net to mark his 100th MLS appearance with a game-winner.

Medina will probably come up short of Harrison’s numbers in the goals column — maybe even for assists, too — but it’s already very clear that he’s got a brilliant soccer mind when it comes to so many of the little things: his movement off the ball, how to time his runs to maximize the space he creates for others, and a willingness to play within the confines of his own strengths and weakness. For a 20-year-old player of any age, he’s been off-the-charts impressive.

Injuries, ineffectiveness, indifference

We’re only two weeks into the season, and LA have already lost superstar attacker Romain Alessandrini to a hamstring injury last week, starting center back Michael Ciani to an injury of his own on Sunday, and supposed-to-be-star Giovani dos Santos to a complete loss of form and ability, and/or an overwhelming sense of indifference. Dos Santos was subbed off at halftime of Sunday’s game, replaced by Servando Carrasco, a defensive midfielder.

Why would Sigi Schmid do that to his most expensive and centerpiece Designated Player, you ask?

Considering LA have considerably curtailed their free-spending tendencies in recent seasons, it’s not at all outside the realm of possibility that they could look to move on from Dos Santos’ contract, which pays him $5.5 million per year, should he continue in this vein of form.

Yes, we’re going to keep talking about VAR

… until MLS and the Professional Referee Organization gets its head on straight. If you missed it yesterday, I ranted at greater length about Baldomero Toledo and Co.’s refusal to even consult the video review available to him after Los Angeles FC scored what will likely be the most egregiously offside goal this season (since, you know, VAR is in place to correct these kind of mistakes).

On Sunday, barely a day later, another instance where VAR could have fixed a potentially “clear and obvious error” occurred in the 85th minute, with LA trailing 2-1 and threatening to equalize, when Ashley Cole was shown a second yellow card for tripping Villa as he prepared to run into 50 yards of open field.

First things first, yellow cards — not even a second yellow — aren’t reviewable within the guidelines set forth by MLS (goals, penalties, straight red cards and mistake identity). Considering a second yellow has the exact same impact as a straight red, which is to effectively end LA’s comeback bid when Cole appears to have made no contact with Villa, it should be reviewable all the same.

These are simple matters of common sense that, were MLS serious about using VAR as a tool to improve the level of refereeing, could be fixed overnight. They started using VAR roughly two-thirds of the way into the season last year, so what’s an amendment to the guidelines after fewer than two dozen game this year?

Cruzeiro relegated from Brazilian top flight for first time

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Brazilian side Cruzeiro was relegated from the top flight for the first time in the club’s 98-year history following a 2-0 defeat to Palmeiras on the final day of the season.

Cruzeiro required victory and a loss by Ceara at Botafogo to stay safely in the Brazilian Serie A, but neither came to pass.

Palmeiras midfielder Ze Rafael scored in the 58th minute to send the visitors on their way, with fellow midfielder Dudu finished things off in the 84th minute. Referees ushered the players off the field immediately after the conclusion of the match as Cruzeiro fans rioted in the Mineirao stadium, ripping out seats, setting off smoke bombs, and clashing with police.

Cruzeiro finished 17th in the 20-team table, three points back of Ceara in 16th. In the Brazilian top flight, the bottom four teams are relegated. CSA, Chapecoense, and Avai were also relegated. Cruzeiro had won the Brazilian Serie A as recently as 2013 and 2014, winning four titles in its history. They also have six Copa do Brasil titles, most recently winning the league cup in 2017 and 2018.

Flamengo ran away with the championship, finishing on 90 points, 16 points clear of second-placed Santos and third-placed Palmeiras who both finished level on 74 points. Palmeiras had challenged for the title, but fell off at the end of the season with a five-match winless run through November.

Premier League Preview: West Ham United v. Arsenal

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Two struggling London sides meet Monday when West Ham United hosts Arsenal (Watch live at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

The sides might’ve expected they’d be within close proximity at this point on the fixture list, but two wildly disappointing seasons means the three points between the Gunners and Irons comes with the former in 11th and the latter 16th.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

It’s been nine matches since Arsenal beat someone, 11 since it happened in the Premier League. West Ham hasn’t been much better, winning once in its last 10.

Freddie Ljungberg has yet to win as Arsenal interim boss, while West Ham manager Manuel Pellegrini could see his current stint in London end without more results like the Nov. 30 win at Chelsea.

Monday versus Arsenal would qualify.


Injuries/suspensions

West Ham United: OUT —  Jack Wilshere, Lukasz Fabianski, Manuel Lanzini, Winston Reid. QUESTIONABLE — Michail Antonio.

Arsenal: OUT — Dani Ceballos. QUESTIONABLE — Rob Holding.


Probable lineups

West Ham United: Martin; Cresswell, Ogbonna, Balbuena, Fredericks; Rice, Noble, Yarmolenko, Anderson, Snodgrass, Haller.

Arsenal: Leno; Kolasinac, Sokratis, Luiz, Bellerin, Xhaka, Torreira, Ozil, Pepe, Aubameyang, Lacazette.


What they’re saying

West Ham’s Antonio sees an opportunity: “The only three teams that are really performing are Liverpool, Leicester and Man City. Everyone else is getting beaten, and it means we’ve had a missed opportunity so far this season. We started the season off brightly, the best start we’ve had for four years, but then we’ve had a slump. Everyone’s having a slump and this is our slump. Now it’s time for us to start turning up. We’ve been in this situation before and we know how to dig in and pull ourselves up again.”

Arsenal’s Ljungberg on setting targets: “I don’t think we should stop talking about the top four, but for us it’s about concentrating on what we’re doing here now and not look up, down, sideways. We just need to work on our own game and our own confidence.”


Prediction

Really, you wouldn’t want to predict anything from these sides right now besides goals. We’ll give an edge in desperation to the hosts and a 2-2 draw.

La Liga: Sevilla held at Osasuna, Getafe maintains UCL fight

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Sevilla was held to a 1-1 draw at 10-man Osasuna on Sunday, giving both Real Madrid and Barcelona space at the top of the La Liga table.

Munir El Haddadi put the visitors 1-0 up just 11 minutes in, but Ezequiel Avila struck just before halftime to share the points. Sevilla was held to just two total shots through the opening 45 minutes, and despite Osasuna defender Oier Olazabal being shown a second yellow card with 29 minutes to go, Sevilla still managed just 11 total efforts through the 90 minutes, with four on target.

Getafe continued its battle for a top four spot as they won 1-0 on the road at Eibar. Angel Rodriguez bagged his eighth goal of the season to secure the win, cropping up in the 67th minute to finally put Getafe through. They had been turning the screw for some time, forcing Marko Dmitrovic into a pair of big saves just before the opener which came from an absurdly tight angle after Angel had rounded the goalkeeper. The win leaves them fourth, level with Real Sociedad on 27 points.

They were allowed to close the gap after Real Sociedad was held scoreless in a 0-0 draw at 14th placed Real Valladolid. The visitors put just two of their 14 shots on net, and dropped to fifth thanks to Getafe holding the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Athletic Club also fell back in the race for a top four spot, dropping a 3-2 decision on the road at Real Betis. Joaquin scored a first-half hat-trick, with all three goals coming in the opening 20 minutes to give him five in his last three games. Inaki Williams brought Athletic Bilbao one back before halftime from the spot, and Yuri Berchiche made things interesting with a minute to go, but that was all they could muster as the visitors fell to sixth on 26 points, above Atletico Madrid on goal differential with the two yet to play head-to-head.

Celta Vigo made it interesting as Iago Aspas scored a man-down goal, but Leganes held on for a 3-2 win over the 10-man visitors. Oscar Rodriguez had a first-half brace to help the hosts to a 3-0 lead, but Nestor Araujo and Aspas helped Celta Vigo make things interesting. Still, a 71st minute second yellow card for halftime substitute Gabriel Fernandez hampered the visitors in their efforts for a comeback, leaving Celta Vigo in the relegation zone, a point back of safety, with Leganes is four points behind them in 19th.

Gerrard reacts to Rangers’ Old Firm heartbreak in final

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Steven Gerrard lined his Rangers side up for success, but fate was cruel to the Liverpool legend.

Rangers lost the League Cup Final to their Old Firm rivals on Sunday despite out-shooting the Bhoys by a 16-5 margin, winning a penalty, and playing almost a half-hour up a man.

[ RECAP: Rangers 0-1 Celtic ]

“To a man we were very good … by much the better side,” Gerrard said. “But unfortunately that’s not what gets you a trophy.”

But Celtic goalkeeper Fraser Forster stopped Alfredo Morelos’ penalty, three minutes after goal scorer Christopher Jullien was offside on the lone goal of the game.

Scotland doesn’t yet use VAR, and Gerrard doesn’t love VAR but he likes it more than he likes Scottish officials.

“There were three Celtic players standing in offside positions but unfortunately we play in a country where there is no VAR,” he said, via the BBC. “I’d be a liar if I said I was 100% in favour of it, but the one thing I do know is that officials up here need support.”

Now he has the task of getting his men to rebound ahead of its biggest non-derby in ages, as Rangers need at least a draw against Young Boys at home on Thursday to advance to the Europa League knockout rounds

“It’s a bit raw right now… It’s up to me to pick the players up. One thing I will say is I’ll stay with these players on the evidence of today because they gave me absolutely everything. We might have to suffer a bit short-term. I need to pick them up a bit physically and mentally for Thursday which is huge but our day will come on the evidence of today.”

Gerrard has done a very good job with Rangers, who are two points back of Celtic in a two-horse race for the Scottish top flight title. Celtic has won eight-straight titles to improve their total to 50, four less than the Rangers.