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Arduous 23 days

JUAN MATA is bracing himself for a run of fixtures that could make or break Manchester United’s already underwhelming season. They face six testing matches over the next 23 days, starting with tomorrow at Chelsea. Still to come — Juventus (twice) and Manchester City.

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Make or break period

MANCHESTER — Winger Juan Mata believes Manchester United’s season hinges on how they come away from a difficult run of fixtures in the next month, reports Daily Mirror.

Tomorrow, United travel to Mata’s former club Chelsea — where they have not won since 2012 — before taking on Italian giants Juventus in the Champions League on Wednesday.

Jose Mourinho’s side then host Everton, followed by three away fixtures at Juventus, Bournemouth and local rivals Manchester City.

With United in eighth position having already lost three times, Mata acknowledged these games can spark their season into life.

“Definitely a difficult month,” said the Spaniard.

“We have tough rivals in the league and Juventus in Champions League.

“But if we have good results, it could be a good month, in terms of points, mindset and confidence.

“Let’s see where we are next month and December. It’s an exciting month ahead.”

Mata inspired United’s thrilling fightback from 2-0 down against Newcastle before the international break to ease some pressure off the team and Mourinho.

He came off the bench to score the first goal before Anthony Martial and Alexis Sanchez struck for a 3-2 win.

United have not won at Stamford Bridge since a December 2012 3-2 victory en route to their last title before Alex Ferguson retired.

They also lost their last two in London, without scoring and conceding five.

In their past five league visits, United lost four and drew one, conceding 10 and scoring just two.

“I had good memories from Stamford Bridge and the fans,” said Mata, who spent two and a half years there.

“Our aim is to change the negative run at Chelsea. We’ll try to be clinical, defend well and play with confidence. We have to believe we can win, we need that mentality in important games.”

Mata is confident the Newcastle win could be a turning point in what has been a tough season.

He told Sky Sports: “After halftime, we scored three, could have had more.

“We felt a real connection with the fans, they helped a lot.

“It was a massive change. We needed to win and left with good feelings.” — Agencies

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Lloris: Pogba not poor, United are

LONDON — France skipper Hugo Lloris is convinced international teammate Paul Pogba is not being judged fairly due to his £89 million (RM485 million) pricetag, reports Daily Mirror.

Lloris, who spent a week with the Manchester United midfielder during the international break, told French reporters: “He has a status in the UK, maybe because of his huge transfer fee.

“Sometimes people judge him unfairly. Now he has more maturity, he knows what to do, he proves that with us.”

The Tottenham keeper, who insisted the 25-year-old deserved more respect, believes Pogba has looked poor in a mediocre team.

“His performances are far from being as bad a people say,” said Lloris.

“He’s part of a team which has worse results than we could have expected.

“When it matters he’s there.”

Pogba has been savaged by a few Old Trafford legends — including the vocal Paul Scholes — since returning to the club from Juventus two years ago.

Scholes’ latest outburst saw him accusing Pogba of “switching off” in games.

The World Cup winner’s relationship with manager Jose Mourinho has also reached breaking point this season after the Portuguese took the vice captaincy off him.

These events have fuelled rumours of a move away, with La Liga and Serie A mentioned as preferred destinations.

Pogba is reportedly a big money target for Spanish champions Barcelona, while Juventus are also interested. — Agencies

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Reds’ Mane man floored

LONDON — Liverpool said on Wednesday forward Sadio Mane had undergone successful surgery on a hand injury sustained while on international duty with Senegal.

Jurgen Klopp has several concerns ahead of his team’s return to action against Huddersfield on Sunday, with doubts over forward Mohamed Salah and midfielder Naby Keita. Defender Virgil van Dijk has been playing despite a rib problem.

“Mane’s recovery will be monitored over the next couple of days ahead of the Reds’ return to action at Huddersfield,” said a statement on Liverpool’s website.

Keita had to be piggy-backed off the field by a Guinean teammate on Tuesday after hurting a hamstring against Rwanda.

Salah, meanwhile, suffered a thigh problem while on duty with Egypt.

Liverpool are level on 20 points at the top with Manchester City and Chelsea but have gone four games without a win in all competitions.

Mane, 26, started the season brightly but has not scored for Liverpool since Sept 1. — AFP

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Well done, son

LONDON — Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino was “very proud” of Eric Dier’s robust challenge on Sergio Ramos in England’s 3-2 win over Spain, reports Goal.

Dier slid in on Real Madrid captain Ramos in the Nations League victory on Monday.

He was booked for the aggressive and unnecessary tackle, but Pochettino liked what he saw.

Asked if he was proud of Dier’s desire, Pochettino told Sky Sports: “Yes of course, very proud.”

Dier was one of four Tottenham stars in England’s starting XI in Seville, joined by Kieran Trippier, Harry Winks and Harry Kane.

Pochettino enjoyed the performance of his players, who return to domestic action with a trip to West Ham in the league tomorrow.

“They were brilliant. We were talking about how the attitude was amazing,” he said.

“Against Spain if you don’t play with more attitude than them, they have unbelievable players and it makes your job difficult.

“They were outstanding and it’s difficult to say Eric or Harry Winks or Harry Kane or Kieran (was best), the team was brilliant.

Pochettino also praised the attitude shown by the Three Lions.

“The motivation to play against Spain will be so useful (for Spurs). You need to play with this attitude, then your quality and talent appears.

“Attitude is important for success and it’s important for these players, they have great potential to win (international) titles.”

After West Ham, Spurs turn their attention to a Champions League clash with PSV.
— Agencies

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Milan beat rivals to Paqueta

RIO DE JANEIRO — Flamengo’s highly-rated midfielder Lucas Paqueta will join AC Milan at the end of the year, the Brazilian club said
on Wednesday.

Paqueta’s signature was sought after with the likes of Liverpool, Barcelona and Paris St
Germain interested.

The Rio de Janeiro club did not reveal details of the fee for the 21-year old, but said it was close to his buyout clause and “a good deal for Flamengo in terms of value.”

Brazilian reports said the fee was €35 million (RM167 million).

Attacking midfielder Paqueta, who has been compared to Milan’s most famous Brazilian Kaka, made his debut in May last year and has played 58 times for the first team.

He was capped by Brazil for the first time last month.

He will remain in Brazil until the end of the season in December.

Flamengo are challenging for the title and sit third in the table with nine games remaining. — Reuters

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Henry hoping for transfer of success

MONACO — Thierry Henry hopes his illustrious playing days will help underpin a successful career in management as he embarks on his first top club job at Monaco.

The 41-year-old French World Cup winner left his position as assistant to Belgium coach Roberto Martinez to return to where he began his professional career.

“I hope it’ll be an advantage,” Henry said on Wednesday, when asked how his success as player would serve him now.

“But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. It’ll help.

“But there are some great managers who haven’t played football, and vice versa.”

Henry graduated from Monaco’s youth system and made his debut in 1994.

He went on to spend a trophy-laden career playing for Arsenal and Barcelona.

The former striker also won the World Cup and European Championship
with France.

He ended his career in the US with New York Red Bulls.

“To have the chance to come back is incredible,” he said.

“When the offer came it seemed logical, it was the choice of my heart. You know my fondness for London, but here’s where I started.”

Henry’s first game will be against Strasbourg in the league on Sunday, with a must-win Champions League tie against Brugge four days later.

However, he was reluctant to look too
far ahead.

“A coach is supposed to make people better,” Henry said.

“Improving players for me is already a success, but then you have different types of success.

“How do you define success? It’s difficult. At a big European club success is winning the Champions League. At other clubs, it’s winning the league.

“I know the situation we’re in here and what we need to do.”

Henry replaces Leonardo Jardim, who won Ligue 1 with Monaco last year but was sacked after a string of poor results. — AFP

He’s a phenomenon

PARIS — Paris St Germain goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon backed teammate Kylian Mbappe to win the Ballon d’Or, reported Goal.

Mbappe was shortlisted after leading PSG to a domestic treble and firing France towards their second World Cup in Russia this summer.

The 19-year-old bagged the Best Young Player award after scoring four goals, including one in the final against Croatia.

Mbappe has started this season on fire, scoring 10 in seven for PSG.

Legendary Italy keeper Buffon believes the attacker should be handed the award
this year.

“Given his qualities, what he shows on the field, his decisiveness during the World Cup, he deserves it. I cannot say the opposite,” Buffon said on French TV show Tout le Sport.

Buffon was asked if he had seen a talent like Mbappe and he answered: “In Italy, he’s compared to (Roberto) Baggio, (Alessandro) Del Piero and (Francesco) Totti.

“But he has exceptional talent and technical qualities I’ve rarely seen.

“It’s a phenomenon. And if he persists in wanting to be the best, remains enthusiastic and keeps his normal behaviour, he can last a long time.”

Luka Modric is the favourite to bag Ballon d’Or, and the Croatia captain revealed who he thinks is the most deserving besides himself — not Mbappe but his French teammate.

“I’d put Antoine Griezmann in pole position in terms of the three Frenchmen,” Modric told France Football.

Modric did have plenty of praise for Mbappe, however.

“He’s an extraordinary talent, a wonderful promise for the future but has already displayed a great level. He’s special,”
Modric said.

Ballon d’Or will be presented in a ceremony in Paris on Dec 3. — Agencies

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Rooney lifts DC

WASHINGTON — Wayne Rooney scored a stunning freekick to keep DC United on course for the Major League Soccer post-season on Wednesday with a 1-0 victory over Toronto FC.

Former Manchester United star Rooney, whose arrival in Washington has transformed the club’s season, curled in a superb strike from 30m in the 18th minute.

The victory leaves DC four points clear of Montreal Impact, their closest rivals for a playoff spot, with 47 points from 32 games in the Eastern Conference standings.

Montreal, just outside the post-season places in seventh, have 43 points from 42 games.

DC are now unbeaten in eight games and in control of their playoff destiny with two rounds of fixtures in the regular season left.

Rooney’s side face New York FC on Monday before closing the season against Chicago Fire on Oct 29.

DC’s playoff charge has been traced back to Rooney’s July arrival.

The 32-year-old former England captain called time on his Premier League career earlier this year after leaving Everton.

When Rooney arrived, DC were bottom of Eastern Conference with only two wins from 14 fixtures.
— AFP

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Honda revs up in Oz

MELBOURNE — Keisuke Honda is itching to kick off his Australian adventure with Melbourne Victory tomorrow after a long wait through A-League’s “weird” and “unique” pre-season.

As the league’s highest profile signing, the former Japan midfielder arrived to much fanfare in August.

But with champions Victory eliminated from the pre-season FFA Cup, the 32-year-old has barely kicked a ball in anger.

Instead, Honda has been through an extended training regime to regain fitness after playing at his third and final World Cup.

Unlike many other nations, football is a summer sport in Australia.

The A-League does not compete directly with Australian rules football, union and league rugby in the country’s crowded sports market.

“Everyone is waiting for the season to start,” Honda told reporters.

“Australia has to finish the rugby season and now we start the football league. It’s weird and unique.

“But I’m getting to know Australian culture. It’s nice.”

Honda’s first taste of league action will be a blockbuster derby against Melbourne City in front of roughly 40,000 spectators at Docklands Stadium.

As the 10-team competition’s marquee player, his opponents will be well aware of his reputation and ability.

The reverse does not hold, however, and Honda admitted he had little knowledge of the opposition.

“I don’t follow a lot … I know Tim (Cahill) used to play at Melbourne City, right?” he said, referring to Australia’s recently retired forward.

“Tactically, we’re analysing and (manager) Kevin (Muscat) told us a lot of things they’ll do.

“So I’m OK. I’m ready to play against them.” — Reuters

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