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Mourinho, Man Utd revel in Pogba performance

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Paul Pogba blessed Manchester United with a powerful performance in the Red Devils’ 3-0 UEFA Champions League win at Young Boys on Wednesday, and it was impossible not to notice his class.

[ UCL: Real rocks Roma, Man City falls ]

Jose Mourinho did, as did several of his teammates on a night the French midfielder scored twice and assisted United’s other goal.

“Solid, class and gave the team the pace we needed at times,” said Manchester United’s manager. “He controlled the tempo and of course it was a very good goal.”

Pogba again captained the side, which has won three-straight and allowed just one goal in wins over Burnley and Watford in addition to Wednesday’s win.

Luke Shaw drew a penalty that Pogba converted for the match’s second game, and loved what he saw from his captain. From the BBC:

“He gets some stick sometimes but we know what quality he has. For me, he is one of the best in the world. He is important as captain. He shows on the pitch what kind of leader he is. Hopefully he can carry that on.”

Mourinho’s praise carries a bit more weight considering he didn’t quite enjoy the competition.

“Job done,” he said. “Not phenomenal but good enough. (Young Boys) were intense, compact and had self esteem.”

Brooks helps earn clean sheet as Wolfsburg tops Nurnberg

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Wolfsburg has moved into the top half of the table and secured four straight unbeaten with a 2-0 victory over relegation-threatened Nurnberg on Friday.

American defender John Brooks was one of the stars for Wolfsburg, returning from his yellow card suspension last weekend to contribute yet another 90 minutes. The clean sheet is the fourth of the season for Wolfsburg in Bundesliga play.

After a scoreless first half, Daniel Ginczek opened the scoring just before the hour mark with his fifth goal of the season and third in his last three matches. Josip Brekalo finished it off in stoppage time to send Wolfburg back home with all three points, giving them a total of 22 from 15 matches into eighth place and level on points with seventh-placed Hoffenheim.

Brooks was fantastic over the course of the match’s 90 minutes. He was stellar in the air, winning eight of his 10 aerial duels and completing 10 clearances, four of which with his head. He also successfully completed his only tackle attempt of the match and played a relatively clean game, with just one foul through the 90 minutes and none in his own defensive half. He also completed 56 of his 68 passes, including 29 of 41 forward passes.

Brooks has been solid for Wolfsburg this season, playing every single Bundesliga minute for the club minus last weekend’s suspension for yellow card accumulation. The 25-year-old has played only sparingly for the United States national team in the last 18 months, due to a combination of poor form and injuries. Therefore, a positive turnaround for Brooks is great news for the USMNT as they have shuffled defensive partnerships looking for the most effective one, with mixed results.

AC Milan escapes FFP ruling with just suspended European ban

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AC Milan has escaped harsher Financial Fair Play punishments with the ruling handed down by UEFA on Friday. The European governing body announced that Milan’s punishment is highlighted by a one-year European ban in the 2022/23 and 2023/24 seasons, but that punishment is suspended and will not be imposed unless the club fails to break even over the course of the next 2.5 seasons through June of 2021.

UEFA also included a $13.5 million “fine” plus a European play squad restriction, both of which are imposed immediately. AC Milan will have that monetary sum withheld from its total European tournament prize haul, and the club will be restricted to a 21-player squad in Europe for the next two full seasons. The squad restriction is probably the harshest part of the punishment, leaving them with less wiggle room than the usual 25-player submission to account for injuries and mid-tournament player transactions.

Milan also escaped without a transfer ban, another possible punishment for clubs who breach Financial Fair Play rules.

The decision comes after UEFA handed down a rigid two-year European ban last summer, but the club appealed the decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and won. The Court’s decision, which came this past July, said that the club’s finances had greatly improved under new ownership, and as such, they required a “proportionate disciplinary measure.”

The new ruling says the club can again appeal the decision, if they wish.

Milan was initially flagged for breaching FFP rules after spending a massive $200 million in the summer of 2017 under Chinese owner Li Yonghong, bringing in players like Leonardo Bonucci, Andre Silva, Hakan Calhanoglu, and Lucas Biglia, among others. Yonghong was forced to sell after he failed to make a loan payment, and the club was taken over by U.S. hedge fund Elliott Management Corporation.

Koulibaly left off CAF award shortlist amid Manchester United rumors

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The African confederation somehow managed to leave Kalidou Koulibaly off its shortlist for African Player of the Year, a head-scratching decision considering the rapidly rising stock of the 27-year-old Senegal international.

The CAF announced its 10-man shortlist for the award early Friday morning, before eventually awarding the distinction to Liverpool attacker Mohamed Salah for the second straight year. While Salah is undoubtedly a deserving winner given his goalscoring prowess over the past year and more, a failure to recognize Koulibaly’s presence in the landscape of African footballers is nothing short of embarrassing.

While Koulibaly was left off, Juventus defender Medhi Benatia was on the list, despite proving second-string behind Italians Leonardo Bonucci and Georgio Chiellini. While Koulibaly logged 3,426 minutes in the 2018 calendar year at the heart of Napoli’s defense, Benatia was just utilized for 1,988 minutes. While Koulibaly was an unused substitute just two times the entire 2018 calendar year across all competitions, Benatia has been left on the Juventus bench 14 times this season alone, and 22 times in the 2018 calendar year.

Also acknowledged on the list was Arsenal youngster Alex Iwobi, and while the 22-year-old is undoubtedly a rising talent on a large Premier League club and is slowly endearing himself to the fanbase, he has still logged just nine starts in Arsenal’s 16 Premier League matches this season and had just three goals and 11 assists across all competitions in the 2018 calendar year.

In the last year or two, Koulibaly has been regarded as one of the best center-backs in all of Europe, and it has resulted in rumors of an expensive move. The London Evening Standard reports that two bids for Koulibaly from Manchester United have already been rejected, while a third is potentially on its way that would make Koulibaly the most expensive defender in history, passing Liverpool’s capture of Virgil Van Dijk. That move would make sense as Manchester United’s defense has often been the team’s downfall this season, and the club is desperate for a big signing to land major success, with recent expensive captures Fred, Romelu Lukaku, and Paul Pogba all receiving plenty of criticism in their Manchester United tenures so far.

The Evening Standard report says that Koulibaly was on Manchester United’s radar last summer, but the team instead focused on attempts at other defenders, naming Toby AlderweireldHarry Maguire and Jerome Boateng as players Manchester United made runs at instead. Manager Jose Mourinho has been extremely open about his disappointment in United’s failure to bolster its central defensive ranks in recent transfer windows, only adding Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly in the last three years.

While Manchester United certainly won’t be deterred by the CAF’s massive error, the egregious miss still degrades the award’s prestige when clearly deserving players are shunned for bigger names in what has creeped ever closer to becoming nothing more than a popularity contest.

PL Preview: Fulham v. West Ham

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  • Fulham has won 3 of the last 4 games vs West Ham at home
  • West Ham has not won 4 PL games in a row since 2014
  • Fulham has gone 20 PL games without a clean sheet, conceding 51 goals in that span

Fulham begins a critical four-game stretch, sitting bottom of the Premier League table and needing points as they host West Ham at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, live on NBC or live online at NBCSports.com.

The Whites’ next four matches see them take on the Hammers, followed by games against Newcastle, Wolverhampton Wanderers, and Huddersfield Town. They sit in the basement of the standings, but are just four points from safety. Fulham has secured four points in four matches under new manager Claudio Ranieri, but were also thoroughly beaten by both Chelsea and Manchester United, meaning the games against fellow relegation candidates are becoming more and more critical.

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Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa is unavailable after a controversial second yellow card against Manchester United saw him sent for an early shower. Maxime Le Marchand is a big miss for the Whites, out with an undisclosed muscular injury, but that is the extent of their unavailable list as Calum Chambers, Floyd Ayite, Andre Schurrle, and Kevin McDonald are all ready to go, Ranieri confirmed.

Meanwhile, Jack Wilshere will miss his third straight match for West Ham as he recovers from an ankle injury, and Lucas Perez is likely unavailable due to a cut on his foot, but otherwise the Hammers are fully fit as they look for an opportunity to move into the top half of the table.

West Ham was in the bottom third of the table for much of the first few months of the season, but they have climbed to 11th with a run of seven matches that features just one loss. That includes a current three-match winning streak that has seen West Ham drop three relegation candidates in Newcastle, Cardiff City, and Crystal Palace, by a combined 9-3 score. With Fulham up this weekend followed by matches against Watford, Southampton, Burnley, and Brighton, this is the time for the Hammers to pick up a swath of points and brace for a grueling final third of the season.

What they’re saying

Ranieri on Fulham’s lack of a clean sheet this season: “The players are improving a lot with my tactics. It’s normal they need time to understand everything. Sooner or later, we’ll keep a clean sheet – I hope it’s sooner rather than later.”

Pellegrini on playing a team near the bottom: “I said last week, the most stupid thing we can do is to believe that because we are playing against teams near the bottom of the table we will win. We must be very careful, thinking game by game.”

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Prediction

While West Ham is playing well, they will be up against a team that knows this four-game stretch is critical. Still, Fulham’s midfield is a complete mess, and they have lots to work on. The defense is a bad matchup for a Hammers side on a roll in front of net. That run will continue, as West Ham wins 3-1 behind another big attacking performance.