Monday December 28th, 2015

Louis van Gaal’s latest “must-win match” ended in a goalless draw and a brief burst of boos, among wider applause, as the United manager walked off at Old Trafford on Monday.

Against the defending champion, United gave a significantly better display than in its last home match against Norwich. It would have been a real achievement to play worse.

United started with an attacking intent it has rarely shown this season. Juan Mata and Anthony Martial hit the Chelsea woodwork in the first 17 minutes.

This was the latest round in a long-running battle between two veteran Dutch coaches who, it seems, have never liked each other. Guus Hiddink, who has just taken over at Chelsea, once said the two men “would never go on holiday together.”

Hiddink has a reputation as an attacking coach in the Johan Cruyff tradition. Van Gaal is seen, particularly by disaffected United fans, as obsessed with defense.

Yet even though Chelsea started the match in 16th and only two points above a relegation spot, Hiddink was under less pressure to win. He had been in the job just nine days after replacing José Mourinho.

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Under Van Gaal, United had lost four straight and not won in seven as it had slipped out of the top four and been eliminated from the Champions League.

That might explain why on Monday Van Gaal’s United attacked and Hiddink’s Chelsea defended.

“I’m happy with a point,” Hiddink told BT Sports. “We have a lack of strikers.”

His team played like Mourinho’s Chelsea, only better than it had lately. Chelsea’s fans have accused some of their players of betraying the Special One and causing his dismissal. United’s players have recently bridled at the accusation that they have not been trying for Van Gaal to provoke the same result.

If Chelsea players did harbor a grudge, then this match presented a dilemma. Victory could have provoked Van Gaal’s rapid replacement with Mourinho.

Perhaps that explains two moments of madness in the second half.

Willian inexplicably handled with no one nearby in his own box. Then Nemanja Matic, with just David De Gea to beat, lofted the ball high, wide and ugly. Perhaps that’s why he wears a mask.

After the match, Van Gaal lamented his team’s luck.

“It was a very good performance but you have to score the goals,” he told BT Sports. “We were the dominant team and we have attacked 70%. We are not lucky.”

He also complained that United had “two penalty cases” in the second half.

Van Gaal, straight-faced, reversed the normal soccer decision-making patterns when he gave his United masters a vote of confidence.

“I am fully confident in the board,” he said.

Van Gaal also insisted he had the support of his players.

“You have seen that the players are fighting for me,” he said.

His captain was a little cuter when faced with the same question.

Wayne Rooney, restored after being dropped, had one of his better games this season, showing energy and aggression, though perhaps a little too much. He was lucky to escape a red card for a dangerous tackle near the end. He had also wasted United's last good chance, volleying over from close range.

“You could see how much it meant to the players,” Rooney told BT. Asked directly if their effort was for Van Gaal, Rooney refused to name the manager. “We’d be letting ourselves down if we didn’t go onto that pitch and give our all. We are professional players.”

And they are still paid, regardless of who the manager is.

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Big men in goal — The slightest error by soccer goalies can cost their team a match. Perhaps, for the best of them, that is part of the appeal.

Thibaut Courtois and David de Gea have both had bad moments this season. Yet on Monday they showed they are goalies for the big occasion.

Courtois saved well from a long-range shot from Rooney in the first half. It was his save from Ander Herrera in the second half that showed why he is such an intimidating goalie. Herrera smacked a half volley at an unguarded part of the net from close range. By the time the ball had traveled six yards, Courtois had flown across, seemingly filling the entire target area. The ball struck his huge chest and flew away. Herrera must have been left feeling puny and futile.

At the other end, skinny de Gea showed his uncanny speed and agility to turn away a first-half effort by John Terry and with a double save from Pedro and then César Azpilicueta.

Asked about his display, De Gea grinned and changed the subject. On Monday he was a stone wall.

Gentle rehab — Two days after capitulating at Southampton, Arsenal eased back to the top of the table with a mildly strenuous 2-0 workout against Bournemouth.

Bournemouth, which has been enjoying a nice little run lately, kept trying until the end, prodding at Arsenal’s tender defense without doing any real damage.

Arsenal, on the other hand, could have scored far more. Theo Walcott and Per Mertesacker, with a comical close-range header after the ball struck the post, squandered the best chances.

Both Arsenal goals, naturally, involved Mesut Ozil.

Arsène Wenger, The Arsenal manager, has complained in the past that Ozil will only shoot if he is certain to score. Ozil likes to share. But with Thierry Henry’s Premier League record for assists in his sights, he also has a selfish reason for trying to create goals for others rather than score himself.

After 27 minutes, Ozil set up Gabriel Paulista and set Arsenal on the road to victory.

Gabriel didn’t have to jump as he headed in Ozil’s precise corner into a goalmouth bizarrely free of Bournemouth defenders. It was Ozil’s 16th assist after exactly half the season. Henry’s record, for a whole season, is 20.

Ozil did score himself, perhaps out of politeness. Olivier Giroud has been the biggest beneficiary of Ozil’s creativity this season, scoring six goals from his assists. After 63 minutes, Ozil rolled a gentle pass to Giroud on the penalty spot and kept jogging forward. When Giroud chipped the ball back, Ozil controlled it nonchalantly on his thigh and passed it into the goal.

Like so much that Ozil does, it all looked easy and effortless. The fact that he looks like he is not trying when things go well, leads to the suspicion that Ozil isn’t trying when things go badly.

Third best — Tottenham’s 2-1 victory at Watford on Monday lifted Spurs to the unfamiliar heights of third place, at least until Manchester City plays Leicester on Tuesday.

For those who judge purely by results, the way Tottenham eked out a victory at a resolute opponent with a goal in added time, suggests it is the real thing. Indeed, Spurs, despite three changes, looked the part for the first 63 minutes. When it was then handed a big advantage, it rather lost its nerve.

Tottenham’s pressing brought an early goal for Erik Lamela. Tottenham could have had more. Instead Odion Ighalo, too strong for Eric Dier and too fast for Hugo Lloris, leveled before half time. Ighalo finished coolly for his 14th goal of the season. In just two seconds, he showed why Premier League defenses struggle to keep him quiet.

In the 63rd minute, Nathan Aké, a defender on loan from Chelsea, perhaps trying to clear the soccer ball with a raised boot, ended up nearly brutally injuring Lamela. Aké was sent off.

Quique Sánchez Flores, the Watford manager, of course disagreed with the “amazing” decision. On the other hand, Ighalo was lucky not to be sent off a few minutes later for whacking Tom Carroll with an elbow.

Mauricio Pochettino of Spurs diplomatically suggested Aké’s lunge “was an orange.”

Against 10 men, Spurs struggled and then panicked.

Watford retreated. Against 10 men massed in defense, Spurs could not create a single chance. Finding it had nothing to fear, Watford began to come forward.

After Aké’s dismissal, Watford won four corners and Tottenham none. From the last, Lloris desperately clawed the ball away. Goal-line technology suggested only the waterproof coating had not crossed the line.

In the aftermath, Spurs had space to counter-attack. Less than a minute later Son Heung-min backheeled a Kieran Trippier cross past Huerelho Gomes.

There was still enough added time for Tottenham to quake again as Watford huffed and puffed.

Tottenham struggles to cope with the pressure at the end of tight matches. Calm confidence in those conditions is one sign of a champion. Monday’s display was unconvincing but the result may help build the self-assurance Tottenham lacks.

Starry Stoke — The headlines will center on the added time penalty that gave Stoke a 4-3 victory at Goodison on Saturday. But it was the other six goals that made this topsy-turvy game a thing of beauty.

Maybe John Stones got a toe on the ball before bringing down Marko Arnautovic in the dying seconds. It was an unwise challenge. It was also karma for Everton. The Toffees won in added time at Newcastle on Boxing Day with a flukey long-range header by Tom Cleverley.

Arnautovic slipped as he struck the penalty but hit the ball so hard it still flew past Tim Howard to give Stoke victory. It was the only ugly goal in a match that offered six that expressed the unfashionable idea that soccer is a team game.

Xherdan Shaqiri swept in the first following quick and clever movement and passing by Bojan and Arnautovic.

Romelu Lukaku’s levelled after an equally intricate Everton build-up crowned by a soft five-yard pass of such deceptive simplicity by James McCarthy that it bordered on genius. It was the easiest and best pass of a match filled with pretty assists.

Shaqiri’s second, a delicious feathered chip, was set up by a sumptuous long diagonal pass from Bojan.

Lukaku’s second, slickly finished, followed a similar pass from Cleverley.

Gerard Deulofeu put Everton ahead from close range with a goal that resembled Stoke’s first, with Lukaku and Ross Barkley carving out the opening.

Joselu levelled for Stoke pouncing on a rebound after a dangerous cross from Arnautovic had forced Howard to dive and flail at the ball.

Appearances can be deceptive. Everton scored its only three shots on target. Stoke hit four from five shots on target.

Yet the goals were a reminder that true beauty in soccer is not some lottery-winning long-range sledgehammer but carefully crafted goals created by selfless running, intelligent passing, slick control and, above all, imagination.

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