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2022 MLS Cup Playoffs best XI

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The 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs were arguably the most entertaining in league history, especially if the final was anything to go by.

LAFC beat the Philadelphia Union 3-0 on penalties to take home the biggest prize, but not before an incredible 3-3 draw that included both sides taking the lead and the record for the latest goal in MLS history being broken twice – including by Gareth Bale in the 128th minute.

Of course, the Playoffs are about more than just the final. Players stepped up in earlier rounds to get LAFC and the Union that far, while there were some real standout performances from stars at other clubs.

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WIth that in mind, we’ve put together our best XI from the 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs:

Blake was crucial to the Union's run.

Blake was crucial to the Union’s run. / Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

GK: Andre Blake – Only Sean Johnson (14) made more saves than Andre Blake (13) during these Playoffs, while the Jamaica international allowed just one goal in his opening two games. Even in the final, he couldn’t be blamed. Blake’s most memorable moment was stopping Alexander Callens just after the Union went 1-0 down in the Eastern Conference Final – a save that turned the match on its head.

RB: Olivier Mbaizo – He didn’t come up with too many attacking fireworks, but Olivier Mbaizo was solid as a rock throughout the Playoffs. The Cameroonian defender was dribbled past just once across the three games and made a combined seven tackles while staying on the field for all 300 minutes of the Union’s campaign.

CB: Jesus Murillo – LAFC had serious fitness troubles at center-back but through it all, Jesus Murillo was a constant. The Colombian played every single minute of the Black and Gold’s run while having to deal with Giorgio Chiellini, Eddie Segura, and Sebastien Ibeagha all coming in at one point or another. Sure, Murillo didn’t have his greatest game against the LA Galaxy, but he was a giant against Austin FC and even scored in Saturday’s final.

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CB: Jack Elliott – His Playoffs might well be remembered for being beaten in the air by Gareth Bale, but that would be so unfair to Jack Elliott. The English center-back had already scored twice in the final to put the Union on the brink, while through the post-season, he ranked second for interceptions (6) and tackles (6), while winning 15 of his 21 contested aerial duels.

LB: Kai Wagner – Wagner is so often heralded for his offensive play and, indeed, he did notch an assist at MLS Cup. However, it was his defensive play that impressed so much during the Playoffs, with Wagner putting in tackle after tackle and still finding time to create at the other end. It was a close-run thing with Diego Palacios, though.

Driussi put in two incredible performances for Austin FC.

Driussi put in two incredible performances for Austin FC. / Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

CM: Ilie Sanchez – It may come as quite a surprise to learn that LAFC only dominated possession in one post-season game, with both the LA Galaxy and Philadelphia Union seeing more of the ball. However, when the Black and Gold had it, Ilie Sanchez made it count with some supreme, metronomic passing. What’s more, the Spaniard used all his positional intelligence to cut out opposition attacks, keeping LAFC on top even without the ball.

CM: Maxi Moralez – If you need someone to show up for the big occasion, look no further than Maxi Moralez. After scoring just two regular-season goals, the veteran Argentine stepped up and found the net in all three of NYCFC’s Playoffs games. Moralez didn’t let up creatively, either, with only Diego Fagundez (10) creating more chances (8) on the whole. And, as always, despite his age, Moralez worked relentlessly for the team and probably deserved another MLS Cup appearance individually.

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CAM: Sebastian Driussi – For the first two rounds of the Playoffs, Sebastian Driussi was a force of nature. Sure, he fell flat against LAFC, effectively killing Austin FC’s chances. But it’s hard to forget his two-goal performance against Real Salt Lake, or his match-winner against FC Dallas. Driussi single-handedly dismantled those two defenses, taking Austin into uncharted territory.

Vela inspired LAFC once again.

Vela inspired LAFC once again. / Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

RW: Carlos Vela – We all know Carlos Vela isn’t the same player he was in 2019 and, yet, he still finds a way to contribute. The Mexican forward created seven chances across three games, providing an assist in each of LAFC’s wins, while with a combined xG total of 0.85, he was really quite unlucky not to score himself. Vela is more than just a talisman for LAFC now, he’s also become their captain and spiritual leader.

ST: Heber – Perhaps Cristian Arango should be here, but it’s hard not to be impressed by Heber’s story. While out with an ACL injury, the Brazilian striker had to watch as Taty Castellanos moved into the middle and won a Golden Boot. Even when he was back fit, Talles Magno was often preferred up-front throughout 2021. And yet, as the season went on, Heber won his place back and was even fit enough to score in each of NYCFC’s Playoffs wins this campaign, proving a menace for Inter Miami and CF Montreal before finally running out of steam in the Eastern Conference Final.

LW: Denis Bouanga – Bounga’s Playoffs campaign definitely peaked with his brace in El Trafico against the Galaxy but he definitely wasn’t done there, even if he didn’t score again. The Gabon international created four chances across his next two games while, during the whole Playoffs campaign, he made nine tackles, putting in one hell of a shift for Steve Cherundolo. Bouanga appears to be everything LAFC wished Brian Rodriguez would be.

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Subs: John McCarthy, Diego Palacios, Jakob Glesnes, Kellyn Acosta, Jose Cifuentes, Daniel Gazdag, Djordje Mihailovic, Diego Fagundez, Cristian Arango.



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Man Utd’s fixture list up to Carabao Cup final including Barcelona & Leeds clashes

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Manchester United reached their first final under Erik ten Hag by securing safe passage through the Carabao Cup semi finals at the expense of Nottingham Forest.

The Red Devils have enjoyed a brilliant run of form after their infamous defeats to Brighton and Brentford to start the season. They’re firmly in the Champions League qualification mix and remain alive in the FA Cup and Europa League.

However, their commitments in cup competitions means Ten Hag faces a tough February as he tries to balance the playing time of a squad that has recently been struck by injuries to key players.

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Here’s United’s truncated schedule leading up to the Carabao Cup final, including some juicy derbies and European fixtures.

Michael Olise, David De Gea

Olise denied Man Utd with a late free kick last time out / Justin Setterfield/GettyImages

Fresh from sealing their spot in the Carabao Cup final against Newcastle, United are back into Premier League matters when they host Crystal Palace at Old Trafford on Saturday 4 February in a 15:00 GMT kick off.

The two sides duked it out earlier a few weeks ago in their first meeting of the season as a late Michael Olise free-kick earned Palace a point after Bruno Fernandes’ strike just before half time.

Manchester United and Leeds are fierce rivals and the tension between the two teams has risen again following Leeds’ promotion to the Premier League.

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The Red Devils have scored 15 goals in the four meetings in that time, only failing to win once when they were held to a goalless draw in April 2021. The fixture was originally postponed following Queen Elizabeth II’s death in September and will take place on Wednesday 8 February at 20:00 GMT.

Fred, Anthony Elanga

Fred and Elanga struck at Elland Road last season / Shaun Botterill/GettyImages

That fixture rearrangement means the two Uniteds will face each other twice in four days.

In this fixture last season, two headless chickens went at it as Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds were downed 4-2 by Ralf Rangnick’s Man Utd. Goals from Harry Maguire and Bruno Fernandes had the visitors 2-0 up before two goals in two minutes from Rodrigo and Raphinha squared things up.

Substitutes Fred and Anthony Elanga gave the Red Devils all three points. However, they would win only three more league games before the end of the season.

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The stakes are really upped in mid February when Man Utd travel to Barcelona to face the Catalan giants at Camp Nou in the Europa League knockout play-off round.

It’s Barça who hold the edge in recent meetings, having won the past four games between the two sides.

Once they return home from the trip to Catalonia, United have a home game against Leicester to contend with.

The Foxes have endured some turbulent form this season but have mostly been a mess at the back, though the sides were only separated by Jadon Sancho’s strike they met back in September.

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Lionel Messi

A lot has changed since United and Barça last met in 2019 / Etsuo Hara/GettyImages

The return leg of the Europa League knockout play-off round will determine who between United and Barça continue in the continent’s secondary club competition.

United’s last win over Barça came at Old Trafford in 2008 when Paul Scholes scored the only goal of a Champions League semi final tie to send his side to final in Moscow.

Two of the most improved sides this season meet in the Carabao Cup final in late February when Newcastle face Man Utd.

Both sides are eyeing up Champions League qualification and each sit in the top four currently and this meeting could be an opportunity to land a significant psychological blow.

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Player ratings as Catalans pull clear in La Liga

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Barcelona survived a late scare against Real Betis to secure a 2-1 win and at least temporarily extend their lead at the top of La Liga to eight points before Real Madrid play on Thursday night.

Barça went into the game at Benito Villamarin knowing they had the opportunity to start pulling away from their fierce rivals in Madrid. But it took until well into the second half for the breakthrough to come, with Raphinha and later Robert Lewandowski eventually netting.

An own goal from Joules Kounde in the closing stages threatened to make it a difficult end for Xavi’s team, but they managed to see it out. Betis midfielder William Carvalho, who had already been substituted with an hour played, was then sent off for dissent at the game’s conclusion.

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Betis were actually the first to threaten in the contest, seeing Luiz Henrique only narrowly miss an early chance when his shot was deflected just wide by Alejandro Balde.

Pedri had a chance for Barça at the other end not long after, but his touch in the penalty area wasn’t sharp enough and Rui Silva in the home goal got down to pick the ball off his toe.

Silva again denied Pedri after the restart, but Raphinha broke the deadlock in the 65th minute. The Brazilian, whose debut season hasn’t been a rip-roaring success, tapped in from close range after excellent work from Balde down the left flank.

Lewandowski’s ultimately decisive second was from only a little further out, pounced on by the Pole after Ronald Araujo flicked on Raphinha’s cross.

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That cushion was enough for Barça and ensured that Kounde’s own goal mattered little in the end.

GK: Silva (6); RB: Ruibal (7), CB: Pezzella (6), CB: Felipe (6), LB: Abner (6); CM: Rodriguez (6), CM: Carvalho (5); RM: Henrique (7), AM: Fekir (6), LM: Canales (6); ST: Iglesias (6)

Subs: Guardado (6), Juanmi (6), Rodri (6), Jose (5), Sabaly (6)

GK: Ter Stegen (6); RB: Kounde (6), CB: Araujo (7), CB: Chistensen (7), LB: Balde (8); CM: De Jong (7), CM: Busquets (8), CM: Pedri (7); RW: Raphinha (8), ST: Lewandowski (7), LW: Gavi (7)

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Subs: Fati (5), Torres (N/A), Kessie (N/A)

Player of the match – Alejandro Balde (Barcelona)



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Player ratings as Mbappe injury mars routine win

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Paris Saint-Germain’s 3-1 win over Montpellier in Ligue 1 on Wednesday night was marred by Kylian Mbappe limping from the field with a suspected hamstring injury.

The Frenchman wandered off down the tunnel after just 21 minutes, which will no doubt concern PSG’s supporters less than two weeks before the Parisians are due to lock horns with Bayern Munich in the last 16 of the Champions League.

Mbappe’s absence didn’t affect the result of the game, as Fabian Ruiz, Lionel Messi and Warren Zaire-Emery bagged second half goals for PSG, but the Frenchman did have a rather eventful night despite being on the field for less than a quarter of the game.

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After Sergio Ramos was hauled down in the area, Mbappe saw his ninth minute penalty saved by Montpellier goalkeeper Benjamin Lecomte, only for VAR to determine that he’d come off of his line too soon.

But Mbappe missed the second spot kick as well, with Lecomte again denying him, before he sunk to the turf 10 minutes later clutching his hamstring.

Messi had a goal chalked off by VAR for offside before the half-time interval as PSG dominated, and it was deja vu eight minutes after the break when Achraf Hakimi also had an effort ruled out by the officials.

PSG weren’t to be denied though, and they took the lead through Ruiz after some good smart build-up play involving Vitinha, Hakimi and Mbappe’s replacement, Hugo Ekitike.

Spanish midfielder Ruiz then produced a sublime assist for Messi’s goal 15 minutes time, linking up nicely with Ekitike before sliding a perfectly weighted pass through to the Argentine. He, inevitably, did the rest by dinking the ball past the impressive Lecomte.

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Montpellier scored in stoppage time to reduce the arrears when PSG could, and should, have been out of sight, and almost levelled the game when the visitors were caught dozing moments later.

Zaire-Emery, aged just 16, sealed the deal to become PSG’s youngest ever goalscorer, but the main worry for Christophe Galtier will be whether Mbappe is fit to face Bayern when the Champions League returns to the Parc des Princes on Valentine’s night.

Warren Zaire-Emery is PSG's bright new star

Warren Zaire-Emery is PSG’s bright new star / PASCAL GUYOT/GettyImages

GK: Gianluigi Donnarumma – 6/10 – Statuesque as Arnaud Nordin pulled a goal back for Montpellier late on. Didn’t have much to do.

RB: Achraf Hakimi – 7/10 – Denied a fantastic goal by the assitant referee’s flag. There are few better full-backs to watch than Hakimi when he’s in full flow.

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CB: Marquinhos – 7/10 – Passing accuracy was on point and seemed to be in full control until a late blip almost cost PSG dear.

CB: Sergio Ramos – 6/10 – Was doing pretty well, even winning a penalty, before an unfortunate clash of heads ended the Spaniard’s night.

LB: Nuno Mendes – 6/10 – Still working his way back to full fitness but got a good hour and a bit under his belt.

DM: Danilo Pereira – 6/10 – Slipped into the back four after Sergio Ramos went off injured – a role he’s becoming increasingly familiar with.

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RCM: Carlos Soler – 6/10 – A little quiet compared to those around him and was often outduelled.

CM: Vitinha – 7/10 – Again impressive in the heart of midfield, playing a key role in PSG’s opening goal.

LCM: Fabian Ruiz – 8/10 – Was in the right place at the right time to give PSG the lead, and then produced a fantasticly weighted pass for Messi’s goal.

ST: Lionel Messi – 8/10 – Denied by VAR in the first half but showed his class to put the game beyond Montpellier. The lead orchestrator of all things good, as per.

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ST: Kylian Mbappe – 4/10 – Missed two penalties and went off injured. Not a night for Mbappe to remember.

Substitutes

SUB: Hugo Ekitike – 7/10 – Gave PSG an outlet up front, and his hard work and endeavour allowed PSG to break the deadlock.

SUB: Renato Sanches – 6/10 – Helped PSG control proceedings after coming on for the injured Ramos.

SUB: Warren Zaire-Emery – 7/10 – Took his goal superbly to become PSG’s youngest ever goalscorer. A real talent.

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SUB: Juan Bernat – 6/10 – A steady but unspectacular 20 minutes or so for the former Bayern Munich man.

Player of the Match: Fabian Ruiz (PSG)





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