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Manchester United, Arsenal both desperate at Old Trafford

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Two teams with Top Four expectations meet sitting mid-table in an Old Trafford clash on Monday at 3 p.m. ET live on NBCSN and live online at NBCSports.com.

There is a different feeling surrounding this meeting of bitter Premier League enemies. They are both immeasurably desperate.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Unai Emery are in very precarious positions as they guide two fallen giants hoping to avoid further depths of despair. A loss here could doom one of these squads to a long, hard season of little gain, while a draw would confirm the equal plights of both rival clubs that long for a return to glory that seems so far out of reach.

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The future is now for Manchester United, as Mason Greenwood could see his first Premier League start with Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial both sidelined with injuries. Paul Pogba‘s status is questionable thanks to an ankle injury he re-aggrivated midweek in cup action, the same ailment bothering Arsenal striker Alexandre Lacazette who will likely miss out. The Gunners will, however, have Kieran Tierney available for selection having yet to make his Premier League debut.

Injuries/suspensions

Man United: OUT – Marcus Rashford (hip), Anthony Martial (hamstring), Eric Bailly (knee), Timothy Fosu-Mensah (knee). QUESTIONABLE – Paul Pogba (ankle).
Arsenal: OUT – Alexandre Lacazette (ankle), Emile Smith-Rowe (concussion).


Projected Lineups:

Man United: De Gea; Shaw, Lindelof, Maguire, Wan-Bissaka; McTominay, Matic, Mata; James, Greenwood, Pereira.

Arsenal: Leno; Tierney, Luiz, Sokratis, Maitland-Niles; Xhaka, Guendouzi; Saka, Ceballos, Pepe; Aubameyang.


What they’re saying

Man United manager Solskjaer on struggles thus far: “You evaluate every single game and look through the games, but I’m not doubting myself, no. If I doubt myself, then the rest of the world would as well. We have loads of discussions, so we believe in what we’re doing.”

Arsenal manager Emery on rivalry:  “Each match when I watched in Spain, Arsenal v Manchester United, Manchester United v Arsenal, was a special moment. I think Monday at eight o’clock, all around the world, if someone wants to watch a football match, it’s this one. We really want to play matches where we can do something important. We are preparing well. The players are wishing to play the next match – we know it’s a very big opportunity for us to get three points.”


Three key battles

  1. Daniel James v. Ainsley Maitland-Niles – The young Arsenal right-back was sent off last time out against Aston Villa with two yellow cards, and should he get a chance to start and redeem himself, he will need to bounce right back against one of the more in-form wingers in the league. Daniel James has been one of the few bright spots in attack for Manchester United this season, and Maitland-Niles will have his hands full. Should Emery decide against going with the 22-year-old at right-back, he could give Hector Bellerin a chance to return to favor, leading even more intrigue to this matchup on the Manchester United left flank.
  2. Dani Cabellos v. Nemanja Matic – Manchester United fans won’t be worried about Scott McTominay holding his own in front of the Red Devils back line, as the 22-year-old has been fantastic for the club since earning a starting place in the middle of last year. Instead, if Cabellos is to trouble the Man United midfield it will likely be at the expense of Nemanja Matic who has looked off the pace at times this season, both on the ball and off it. If Cabellos gets a hold of the midfield and has room to make magic, the Manchester United back line could be forced to pick up the slack, which means good news for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who would clean up the scraps.
  3. Mason Greenwood v. David Luiz/Sokratis – The 17-year-old Manchester United striker has earned praise from all corners of Red Devil land for his performances in other competitions, and it is time for his first Premier League start. The Arsenal defense, meanwhile, hasn’t done much to cover itself in glory this season, and that could mean a feast for the teenager at the Theater of Dreams. Will Greenwood reward the faith Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has shown in his young talent?

Prediction

These two teams are hungry for a result, and when desperate sides meet, the neutrals benefit from what could likely become an electric affair. Goals and big moments are to be expected, and that makes for an exciting matchup. Ultimately the fear of losing could outweigh the glory of victory, which could lead to a lack of attacking mentality late, but I like Arsenal to shock the hosts in their fortress thanks to the host of injuries Manchester United is dealing with at the moment; the loss of Paul Pogba is more troubling than most Red Devil fans care to admit. Look for Dani Cabellos to shine as Arsenal takes it in an exciting 2-1 affair that goes down to the wire with Mason Greenwood finding the back of the net in a losing effort.

USWNT’s Rapinoe named SI Sportswoman of the Year

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In 2019, Megan Rapinoe won a World Cup title, Golden Ball, Golden Boot, FIFA World Cup MVP, and the Ballon d’Or. Now, she can add her name to another distinguished list.

Sports Illustrated on Monday revealed that Rapinoe had been named SI’s 2019 Sportsperson of the Year. She’s the first individual soccer player from any gender to win the award, and she follows the 1999 U.S. Women’s National Team as the second USWNT-related athlete to garner the award.

[READ: Rapinoe wins 2019 Ballon d’Or]

Other notable winners of this award are Serena Williams, LeBron James, the Golden State Warriors, Michael Jordan, and Muhammad Ali.

“Even in a year with many great candidates, choosing Megan as the Sportsperson of the Year was an easy decision,” Steve Cannella, co-editor-in-chief of Sports Illustrated said in a statement released by the magazine. “She is a force of nature on and off the field, a trailblazing soccer player who also proves every day how large and loud a voice a socially conscious athlete can have in 2019.”

Rapinoe has had about as good of a year as a player can have, and she did it under enormous pressure. She withstood verbal and online taunts from the U.S. president for her noted opposition against his political decisions, as well as dealt with injuries during the tournament. Even if she wasn’t always at her best on the field, she found a way to score key goals at important moments.

Every Women’s World Cup seems to raise the profile of the USWNT and soccer in this country, but beyond her work on the field, Rapinoe’s hair, media savvy and ultimately, her performance won over any critic she could have. What she’s done for soccer in this country is immeasurable, and hopefully there are people that have a desire to keep watching the beautiful game after the World Cup, thanks in some part to Rapinoe.

Rapinoe will grace the cover of Sports Illustrated for the Dec. 16 issue.

Ljungberg on Pepe: He ‘showed his quality’

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Arsene Wenger used to say that players needed around six months once they came to the Premier League to get adjusted to both living in England and getting acclimated to the pace and physicality of the league.

For Nicolas Pepe, it was advice well heeded.

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Offensively, Pepe was outstanding as he scored a goal and an assist in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over West Ham. At the same time, Pepe worked hard on the defensive end, making life difficult for West Ham left back Aaron Cresswell and anyone down West Ham’s right flank.

On Monday, Pepe showed that he was worth his $87 million transfer fee, and he only needs a yard of space to create something magical.

“People always ask me about Nico and I try to explain,” Ljungberg after the game. “He comes from the French league, he comes to the Premier League – in my opinion the best league in the world – and it’s a lot faster and a lot harder. He needs to adapt. People put pressure on him but that’s not so easy, and I thought what he did today was he worked really hard offensively and defensively and showed his quality.

“I’m so pleased for him because at the same time he was a big, big buy for the club and then comes pressure with that as well. He will fall asleep with a smile tonight.”

In the 66th minute, Pepe found himself isolated on the wing with just Cresswell to beat. After cutting inside, Pepe curled home a beauty which ended up being the game-winning-goal. It was just his second Premier League goal of the season and his first from open play. Perhaps now after five months of bedding in at Arsenal, Pepe is ready to shine.

There’s no doubt that with Arsenal’s defensive issues, they need their attacking stars to score in bunches from here on out. If Pepe can finish the season with ten goals and ten assists, it will be a wild success, and set him up well for the next season.

Judge rules players not guilty in match-fixing case in Spain

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MADRID — The 36 players on trial in Spain’s most high-profile match-fixing case were cleared of wrongdoing on Monday.

A Spanish judge issued the “not guilty” verdict, saying there was not enough evidence to convict the players and others on trial – including former Mexico coach Javier Aguirre.

More than 40 people were accused of match-fixing involving the Spanish league game between Levante and Zaragoza at the end of the 2010-11 season.

The judge convicted two former Zaragoza officials of fraud – then-president Agapito Iglesias and club director Javier Porquera. They were given a one-year, three-month prison sentence, although they were not likely to face jail time because sentences of less than two years for first-time offenders are often suspended in Spain.

Those accused were facing two years in prison and a six-year soccer ban.

Among the players on trial were Ander Herrera, now with Paris Saint-Germain; former Leicester midfielder Vicente Iborra; former Atletico Madrid captain Gabi Fernandez; River Plate midfielder Leonardo Ponzio; Serbian defender Ivan Obradovic; Lazio forward Felipe Caicedo; Itailan defender Maurizio Lanzaro; and Uruguay striker Cristhian Stuani.

Aguirre was Zaragoza’s coach at the time. He was among those who appeared in court to testify.

The investigation began after Spanish league president Javier Tebas denounced the alleged match-fixing, saying a former player told him a result had been fixed.

Prosecutors said there was evidence 965,000 euros (nearly $1 million) was paid to Zaragoza’s squad and later transferred to Levante’s players to lose the match in the final round of the season. Zaragoza won 2-1 to avoid relegation. Deportivo La Coruna was demoted as a result.

Former Zaragoza officials said the money was paid to motivate players, not fix the result of the game.

Prosecutors said players on both teams were aware of the match-fixing and there was evidence the money was transferred to Levante players after analyzing tax reports and banking transactions at the time.

The judge said in his ruling “there were was no evidence the money was given to Levante players to lose the match.”

A lower court had shelved the case but it was reopened last year after an appeal by prosecutors in Valencia, where Levante is based and where the match was played.

Zaragoza returned to the second division in 2014. Levante is currently in Spain’s top league.

Arsenal overruns West Ham with 3 second half goals

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Who saw that coming?

With three goals in a nine-minute span in the second half, Arsenal overcame a one-goal halftime deficit to comfortably beat West Ham, 3-1, on Monday night at the Olympic Stadium. It was a complete reversal after a second half where Arsenal didn’t attempt a single shot on target in the first half and were second-best in winning duals and second balls.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

But it was the Arsenal stars who helped the club when it was effectively on its knee, facing a tenth-straight match without a win. Goals from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Nicolas Pepe and youngster Gabriel Martinelli secured all three points for Arsenal.

On the other side, West Ham manager Manuel Pellegrini is in a whole host of trouble. West Ham sits just one point above the relegation zone after 16 league matches, and Pellegrini was expected to take the Hammers to the next level.


Three things we learned

1. Arsenal stars finally step up: With Arsenal on the verge of another demoralizing defeat, the club’s expensive strike force helped turn the tide in the second half. Martinelli, Aubameyang, and Pepe all played a huge role, and their goals, arguably against the run of play, were more than enough to inject some excitement into the club.

2. No Luiz, No Problem: Arsenal may have found its new starting centerback combination. After multiple error-prone performances with Sokratis playing alongside David Luiz, Arsenal boss Freddy Ljunberg went with Calum Chambers to partner Sokratis. The end result was a much more organized backline, and fewer mistakes, leading to fewer allowed goals.

3. Pellegrini on the hot seat: Pellegrini will have a nervous few days ahead of him. Despite a rare win over Chelsea last week, West Ham has now dropped successive defeats, first to Wolves and now Arsenal, leaving West Ham on the edge of relegation. Could Pellegrini last until January?

Man of the Match: Arsenal’s defense deserves credit, but goals win games, so Man of the Match has to go to Nicolas Pepe. The Ivory Coast international absolutely earned his massive transfer fee on Monday, scoring a beautiful curler and then setting up Aubameyang with a chip into the box.


In the run up to kickoff, and even halftime, Arsenal had plenty of obstacles to overcome.

Right back Hector Bellerin was forced out of the starting lineup during pregame warmups, and left back Kieran Tierney couldn’t finish the match, having to be substituted midway through the first half.

[ MORE: Premier League stats ] 

Arsenal interim coach Freddie Ljungberg also made some big lineup decisions. Alexandre Lacazette and David Luiz were dropped, with Brazilian teenager Gabriel Martinelli starting up top and Calum Chambers moving inside to centerback. It took 60 minutes, but those moves paid dividends in the end.

However, before then, West Ham controlled the first half, even with less of the ball. The Hammers showed more desire and determination than Arsenal, winning many second balls, and it led to the opening goal. A corner kick in the 38th minute pinballed in and out of the box, with Arsenal twice failing to clear it. Eventually, the ball fell to Pablo Fornals, who chipped a ball into the middle of the box. West Ham centerback Angelo Ogbonna, still up in the box after the corner kick, dashed onto it and though it went off his shoulder, deflected off an Arsenal defender and in for a goal. VAR checked it, as it does with every goal, but the decision stood, and it was well deserved.

West Ham even looked more likely to score a second late in the first half and then early in the second half, as Arsenal couldn’t string many passes together in their own third or the final third.

In the 60th minute, it was like a flip was switched. Suddenly, West Ham provided no pressure on Arsenal’s backline when it had the ball, allowing Arsenal to easily break the lines. After two passes getting through a half-dozen defenders, the ball ended up on the left wing with Aubameyang. Aubameyang crosses into the center and with a first-time finish, suddenly Martinelli put Arsenal level at 1-1.

In the 66th minute, again Arsenal broke through West Ham’s midfield quite easily. Dribbling forward, Mesut Ozil passed into the middle to Aubameyang, who fed Pepe wide. Pepe, who was one-on-one with Aaron Cresswell, cut inside and curled home a beauty to make it 2-1, Arsenal.

Three minutes later, Aubameyang and Pepe teamed up again. Pepe cut inside, but instead of shooting, he slyly chipped a ball into the box. Aubameyang waited for it and as he was inside, scissor kicked the ball in to make it 3-1.

With West Ham shellshocked, Arsenal held on late for a huge win, moving the club back into the top half of the Premier League table.

This story will be updated.