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Neymar out of Clasico after Barcelona lose patience

April 23, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Barcelona will not risk calling up star forward Neymar for the potential title decider with Real Madrid, the Spanish champions said on Sunday, just hours before El Clasico.

Neymar

The loss of the suspended Brazilian forward deals a big blow to Barcelona’s hopes of denying their fierce rivals a first La Liga crown in five years.

Barcelona appealed to Spain’s Court of Arbitration for Sport (TAD) late on Friday over Neymar’s three-game ban in the hope it would be frozen, which would have allowed him to take part in the must-win showdown at the Santiago Bernabeu.

But with the pivotal clash looming — kick-off is at 1845 GMT on Sunday — Barcelona said they were abandoning their bid to have Neymar available.

“Given the legal uncertainty of the lack of a decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport with the game tonight less than 12 hours away, and to focus all attention on the sporting aspect, the club has decided not to call up Neymar,” an angry Barcelona statement said.

The Catalans said the TAD had created “a huge legal void”.

Neymar is in the middle of a suspension for his red card and subsequent sarcastic applause of the officials in Barca’s damaging 2-0 defeat to Malaga two weeks ago.

The club argue that until a ruling on the appeal is held, Neymar’s ban should be suspended and therefore allow him to feature at the Bernabeu.

“As a coach I am prepared to play with Neymar or without him,” manager Luis Enrique said on Saturday.

In the absence of a TAD ruling, Barca would have been taking an enormous risk by playing Neymar as they could have been sanctioned with a defeat for fielding an ineligible player.

Enrique says his last Clasico — he will leave Barcelona this summer — is a must-win: Madrid hold a three-point lead at the top with a game in hand on their rivals.

“Given how close it is to the end of the season it is a decisive weekend,” said Enrique.

“This time a Clasico can decide or almost decide the league or leave it very open. For us it is like a final, only a win will do.”

Madrid could be boosted by the return of Gareth Bale from injury, but the fact the Welshman may not be risked is a further sign that Real have far more room for error.

Bale has been sidelined by an inflammation of the muscles around where he suffered ligament damage in his right ankle that kept him out for three months earlier in the season.

“He will be with us on Sunday,” said Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane.

“You will see tomorrow what team we are going to start with.”

Should Bale not start, the on-form Isco is favourite to take his place, as he did for Madrid’s thrilling 4-2 Champions League win over Bayern Munich after extra-time in midweek.

Centre-backs Raphael Varane and Pepe are Madrid’s only injury absentees meaning Zidane is expected to name the same starting XI as against Bayern.

“There is a lot of tiredness, but also a lot of excitement and desire to keep doing what we are doing,” added the Frenchman.

Only victory will salvage Barca’s season after crashing out of the Champions League at the quarter-final stage to Juventus in midweek.

“For some it means it is a very attractive challenge and for others it means pressure,” Enrique said.

“I prefer to take it as an attractive and marvellous challenge. It’s a chance to move level on points with Madrid.”

Hazard fires Chelsea into Cup final

April 23, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Eden Hazard fired Chelsea into the FA Cup final as the Belgian’s blistering strike ensured Antonio Conte’s selection gamble paid off in his side’s dramatic 4-2 win over Tottenham on Saturday.

Tottenham

Blues boss Conte sprang a major surprise by starting with Hazard and Diego Costa on the bench in the Wembley semi-final as he looked ahead to the Premier League leaders’ vital fixture against Southampton on Tuesday.

But Conte’s bold moves proved inspired as Hazard’s replacement Willian put Chelsea ahead early on and then restored their lead in the second half after Harry Kane’s equaliser.

Dele Alli levelled again for Tottenham, but Conte had all the answers and, when he sent on Hazard, the Belgian blasted Chelsea back into the lead.

Nemanja Matic’s thunderous long-range effort sealed a final date against Arsenal or Manchester City, who meet in the second semi-final on Sunday.

Having seen their lead at the top of the league cut to four points by second placed Tottenham last weekend and looking vulnerable following a limp defeat at Manchester United, this should be a huge psychological boost for Conte’s men.

They rode their luck at times but showed a decisive killer instinct while their London rivals came up short in crunch time.

Tottenham, losers yet again at Wembley and still without an FA Cup final appearance since 1991, need an immediate response in their midweek trip to Crystal Palace if they are to get revenge by pipping Chelsea to the title.

Conte’s decision to pick Willian and Michy Batshuayi instead of Hazard and Costa triggered a round of second guessing, but it took just five minutes for the former Juventus coach to be vindicated.

Breaking at pace, Chelsea worked the ball towards Batshuayi and his deft backheel sent Pedro surging clear.

When the Spaniard was sent sprawling by Toby Alderweireld’s lunge, Chelsea were hoping for a more severe punishment than the yellow card shown by referee Martin Atkinson.

But their frustration was short-lived as Willian stepped up to exact retribution from the free-kick, the Brazilian’s superb 20-yard strike eluding Tottenham goalkeeper Hugo Lloris before nestling into the far corner.

Kane has been the spearhead of Tottenham’s impressive run this season and the England striker’s typically predatory finish drew them level in the 18th minute.

As Christian Eriksen prepared to whip over a cross, Kane was already on the move and his awareness gave him a valuable extra yard of space on Chelsea defender Nathan Ake as he stooped to guide a delicate header past Thibaut Courtois.

But, despite controlling possession for long periods, Pochettino’s side still ended the half behind as his decision to play Son Heung-Min out of position at left wingback was exposed in the 43rd minute.

Kante slipped a pass to Victor Moses and when the Nigerian’s surge into the penalty area was halted by Son’s rash tackle Atkinson gave the penalty on the advice of his linesman.

Batshuayi wanted to take it, but Conte demanded Willian step up and he stroked home the spot-kick in confident style.

It could have been a major momentum changer, yet Tottenham were level again in the 52nd minute.

Barely looking up as he received the ball, Eriksen unfurled a majestic pass towards Alli, who timed his run perfectly to slide in front of Luiz and direct a close-range finish past Courtois.

Conte responded by sending for the cavalry as Costa and Hazard came on for Willian and Batshuayi in the 61st minute, while Cesc Fabregas was introduced soon after.

Once again, Conte’s instincts were spot on and the Italian’s changes brought the winner in the 75th minute.

Fabregas’s corner was only partially cleared and Hazard seized the ball just inside the area before drilling a blistering finish beyond Lloris.

If that was a memorable strike, there was even better to come five minutes later when Hazard teed up Matic and Serb’s thunderous 30-yard rocket sent Chelsea into raptures.

Relentless Monaco dream on after reaching semis

April 20, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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A brilliant Monaco side that has taken Europe by storm will not relent in their bid for glory after beating Borussia Dortmund to reach the Champions League semi-finals, promised coach Leonardo Jardim.

Monaco

The team from the Mediterranean principality were too good for their German opponents in Wednesday’s quarter-final second leg, winning 3-1 at the Stade Louis II to advance 6-3 on aggregate.

“We have won nothing, but we have made history,” declared Portuguese coach Jardim after the game, as his side extended a run that began in the third qualifying round against Fenerbahce last July, nine months ago.

Teenage sensation Kylian Mbappe, skipper Radamel Falcao and substitute Valere Germain got their goals with Marco Reus netting for Dortmund on a memorable night for the hosts.

The last team to come through two qualifying rounds to reach the semi-finals of the Champions League was Dynamo Kiev in 1999, although the format was different in those days.

Nobody expected Monaco — conquerors of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in the last round — to get this far but they have done it playing a superb brand of football that has yielded 141 goals so far this season.

Now they are preparing for their first semi-final appearance since 2004 as they join Juventus, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid in the draw.

None of those teams will fancy playing Monaco, who for all Paris Saint-Germain’s efforts in recent years will be the first French representative in the last four since Lyon in 2010.

“We have taken France into the semi-finals. We want to go out and enjoy it but all four sides are capable of winning the competition,” warned Jardim, whose team were visited by Prince Albert in the dressing room afterwards.

Monaco are not just fighting for glory in Europe — they are also top of the French league and in the French Cup semi-finals, but fatigue is their biggest foe now.

“It’s not easy to play in Europe and try to win the league. We are the team that has played the most games in Europe, so it’s tough,” added a coach who has been linked to Arsenal in the British media.

“Maybe if we had lost in the last 16 we would be fresher now, but we won’t ask our players to change their mentality. We just need to recover well.”

A crunch game at Lyon awaits in the league at the weekend as they look to keep going on all fronts.

“If I have to choose, it’s normal to prefer to win the Champions League, but maybe our chances of winning it are slimmer than winning the league. We will give everything in both,” added the coach.

For Dortmund, elimination was hard to take but the tie was overshadowed by the bomb attack on their team bus en route to last week’s first leg which left Marc Bartra with a broken wrist.

Bartra was there to support his teammates in Monaco but it was another difficult night as their bus was delayed in leaving for the ground, held up by police for security reasons.

“It was the worst thing that could happen a week after the attack — everyone was on the bus ready to go but we were not allowed to,” said coach Thomas Tuchel.

The kick-off was delayed by five minutes but Dortmund’s concentration was again affected.

“It’s only eight days after the terrible attack so we shouldn’t lend too much significance to the team’s performance,” added Tuchel, who was taking charge of Dortmund for the 100th time.

“It was very difficult for the players so I can’t be too critical. We felt ready to push for a semi-final place before the tie but things changed dramatically.”

Dortmund are fourth in the Bundesliga and Tuchel added: “Our path does not end here. We will not be favourites next year but we need to qualify first and then be as unpleasant to play against as possible.”

Steely Juventus shut down Barca to kill off comeback hopes

April 20, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Barcelona’s hopes of staging another sensational Champions League comeback fell flat against a hardened Juventus side who held the Catalans to a 0-0 draw on Wednesday at the Nou Camp to reach the semi-finals 3-0 on aggregate.

TOPSHOT-FBL-EUR-C1-BARCELONA-JUVENTUS

The Italian champions barely gave Barca a glimmer of hope of repeating their historic turnaround against Paris St Germain in the last 16 and protected their healthy advantage from the first leg by starving the hosts of space and clear sights of goal.

Lionel Messi came closest to giving Barca a route back into the contest with four strikes at goal but failed to hit the target with any of them and frequently came up short against Juve’s intimidating centre-back pairing of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci.

Twice European champions Juve lacked the spark and power of their thrilling first-leg victory in Turin, but there was rarely any doubt they would exact revenge for their defeat to Barca in the 2015 Champions League final by reaching the semis for a 12th time.

Barca coach Luis Enrique had said before the game that if Barca managed to strike early then the noise of the Nou Camp would suck the other goals in.

Juventus, however, showed in the opening stages that they are made of sterner stuff than PSG, who gave up a 4-0 first-leg advantage Massimiliano Allegris side pressed Barca in their own half and limited the supply to the front three.

Messi almost managed to pick out Jordi Alba with a hooked pass and later played a one-two with the Spaniard before dragging narrowly wide of the far post.

Ivan Rakitic and Neymar also missed the target with hopeful efforts but Juventus’ aggressive gameplan limited how much attacking Barca could do without leaving themselves exposed.

Gonzalo Higuain cracked a shot over the bar before the break while the probing Juan Cuadrado almost picked out the Argentine striker in the middle, but was thwarted by a brilliant block from Gerard Pique.

Barca increased their grip on possession after the break and spent most of the remainder of the game in their opponents’ half trying to carve out chances, but Juve were always ready for them.

Messi whipped a free kick onto the roof of the net and slammed another shot wide before spurning his best chance, a volley which fizzed over the bar.

Barca right back Sergi Roberto attempted a repeat of his heroic strike against PSG, but also missed the target, unable to prevent his side’s second successive elimination at the quarter-final stage, which will provoke much soul-searching at the five-times European champions.

Ronaldo hat-trick fires Real into semis

April 19, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Cristiano Ronaldo scored a controversial hat-trick to become the first man to reach 100 Champions League goals as Real Madrid overcame 10-man Bayern Munich 4-2 after extra time in Tuesday’s thrilling quarter-final second leg.

Ronaldo

The holders surged through 6-3 on aggregate at an exhilarated Santiago Bernabeu to take their place in Friday’s semi-final draw for a record seventh consecutive year.

But Real were pushed all the way by Bayern, who battled back from a 2-1 first-leg deficit to send the tie into extra time thanks to Robert Lewandowski’s penalty and an own goal from Sergio Ramos.

However, after Arturo Vidal was sent off, Ronaldo hit the century mark in Europe’s top club competition on 104 minutes and completed his hat-trick five minutes later.

Bayern were left incensed, though, as Ronaldo’s second and third goals were clearly offside.

“To score six goals against a team like Bayern Munich isn’t easy so we deserved to go through,” the Portuguese striker told Spanish TV station Antena 3.

“Real Madrid is Real Madrid, we are used to suffering and we are happy to be in the semis once again.”

Marco Asensio gave a night of high-class action the finale it deserved with a sensational solo goal to rub salt in Bayern wounds.

“The (red) card for Arturo wasn’t a card and then the two goals from Cristiano are offside so clearly we are not happy,” said Bayern coach Carlo Ancelotti.

“In a quarter-final you have to put a better referee, or it is the moment to introduce video refereeing, which is what UEFA are trying because there are too many errors.”

The German champions had been beaten on their previous four trips to Spain without even scoring a goal.

However, knowing they needed at least two to progress, Ancelotti’s men started on the front foot and were left to rue a huge opportunity just eight minutes in.

Marcelo made a miraculous block to deny Thiago Alcantara before former Real winger Arjen Robben scuffed into the side-netting on his trusted left foot.

Much like the first leg, Madrid weathered the early storm and had plenty of chances to go in front before half time.

Jerome Boateng bailed out a rare mistake from goalkeeper Manuel Neuer as he cleared off the line from Ramos after Neuer fumbled a simple cross.

The half-time whistle brought some respite to proceedings on the field, although the Bayern fans were involved in a minor clash with police at the break.

The disturbances quickly died down and Bayern soon gave the travelling 4,000 from Germany something to cheer when play resumed.

Another goal-line clearance by Marcelo from Robben’s dinked effort temporarily saved Madrid.

But the hosts didn’t escape moments later when referee Viktor Kassai pointed to the spot as Robben went down under a challenge from Casemiro.

Lewandowski stayed cool under the pressure and converted from the spot for his 39th goal of the season.

Ronaldo looked to have eased Madrid’s nerves when he steered Casemiro’s cross into the far corner 14 minutes from time.

However, Real’s celebrations were very short-lived as just a minute later the ball ricocheted around their box and Ramos turned into his own net.

The balance of a topsy-turvy tie turned Madrid’s way again with five minutes remaining as just as in the first leg, Bayern were reduced to 10 men when Vidal saw a second yellow card for chopping down Asensio.

The extra man proved decisive as Madrid settled the tie with a three-goal burst either side of half time in extra time.

Ronaldo took advantage at not being flagged for offside as he controlled and fired low past Neuer to become the first man to reach a Champions League century.

Four minutes into the second period of extra time he had Marcelo to thank for a brilliant run and unselfish pass that allowed the Portuguese the simplest of finishes to complete his hat-trick despite again being in an offside position.

And Asensio sealed victory in sensational style with a stunning solo run and low right-footed finish as many Bayern players sank to their knees knowing Champions League glory had passed them by for another year.

Vardy in vain as Atletico end Leicester fairytale

April 19, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Jamie Vardy scored in vain as Leicester City’s Champions League fairytale came to a valiant end following a 1-1 quarter-final draw at home to Atletico Madrid on Tuesday.

Atletico

Seeking to overturn a 1-0 first-leg deficit, Leicester fell further behind to Saul Niguez’s first-half header, before Vardy’s 61st-minute strike gave them hope.

But despite heavy Leicester pressure and furious noise inside the King Power Stadium, Atletico completed a 2-1 aggregate win to reach the semi-finals for the third time in four seasons.

“We had them rattled with the effort and commitment we showed. It’s no discredit to lose to a team of that calibre,” Leicester manager Craig Shakespeare told BT Sport.

“The whole club, from the supporters to the players to the owners can be immensely proud, but I’ve just said to the players that they should want more of this and they’ve agreed that that’s what they want.”

Leicester had hoped to become the competition’s first debutant semi-finalists since Villarreal in 2006, but they were unable to engineer a repeat of their last-16 triumph against Sevilla.

Their exit brings to an end a golden adventure sparked by last season’s stunning Premier League title win.

Having successfully staved off the threat of relegation under new manager Shakespeare, the rest of their season now holds nothing more than a return to pre-title normality.

It is the third time Atletico have eliminated Leicester from continental competition, after previous triumphs in the 1961-62 European Cup Winners’ Cup and the 1997-98 UEFA Cup.

Beaten by city foes Real Madrid in the 2014 and 2016 finals, Diego Simeone’s side can continue to dream that this will be the year they finally end their wait for European football’s biggest prize.

“I’m full of emotion and pride at the performance of my team,” said Simeone.

“I also have to say, what a great performance from our opponents. It was almost a pleasure to compete against them.”

Leicester’s desire to make the most of the occasion was clear from the start, pyrotechnics greeting the players as they came out while fans twirled blue, white and gold foil flags distributed by the club.

But whereas Leicester had quickly taken charge of their second-leg match against Sevilla in the previous round, Atletico made it clear they would not be pushed around.

They defended with their customary tenacity, while two dangerous crosses from Yannick Carrasco — preferred up front to the fit-again Kevin Gameiro — demonstrated their threat on the counter.

It was just as Leicester were threatening to make inroads, Shinji Okazaki stabbing wide at the near post from Vardy’s cross, that the visitors tightened their grip on the tie.

Filipe Luis was given space to shape a cross into the box from the left and the unmarked Saul expertly guided a header past Kasper Schmeichel’s outstretched right hand.

Riyad Mahrez volleyed straight at Jan Oblak at the other end after Marc Albrighton’s cross was headed away, but it was the voices of the away fans that rang loudest as the half-time whistle sounded.

The second half brought with it drastic changes for the hosts, with Ben Chilwell and Leonardo Ulloa replacing Yohan Benalouane and Okazaki as Shakespeare switched to a bold 3-4-3 system.

Antoine Griezmann gave them a scare with an early dart into the box, but Atletico soon found themselves on the back foot.

After left wing-back Chilwell thrashed over, Leicester levelled, Vardy slamming in from inside the six-yard box after Chilwell’s shot had been charged down by Stefan Savic.

The final half-hour was virtually one-way traffic, but Atletico repelled everything Leicester threw at them.

Ulloa and Vardy both had shots blocked, while Vardy’s flick was caught by Oblak and Mahrez whipped a free-kick narrowly over the bar.

Leicester captain Wes Morgan, passed fit to play after six games out with a back problem, succumbed to injury late on, symbolically hobbling off as Leicester’s European dream faded away.

Barca need five to beat Juve – Luis Enrique

April 18, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Barcelona will need to hit at least five goals past Juventus to produce another miracle Champions League comeback, but have nothing to lose according to outgoing coach Luis Enrique.

Barcelona news conference - UEFA Champions League Quarterfinal

The Catalans made Champions League history by overcoming a 4-0 first leg deficit to beat Paris Saint-Germain 6-1 in the last round, but have another mountain to climb at the Camp Nou on Wednesday as they trail their quarter-final tie 3-0.

“We need to score fewer goals,” said an upbeat Enrique facing what could be his last European game in charge. “But bearing in mind the opponent could have chances and the goal can come at any moment, our objective is to score five.”

Enrique foresaw Barca’s recovery in the last 16, claiming an attack laced with the potential of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar was capable of scoring six against the French champions.

And he called for an expected near 100,000 crowd to play their part as they did against PSG.

“We don’t have anything to lose. We are free from pressure. Juventus have the semi-finals in their pocket and will have to decide whether to sit back or attack,” he added.

“We only have one option which is to attack, attack and attack again.

“I am sure that if we score the first goal, the Camp Nou will score the second and the third will come of its own accord.”

Barca captain Andres Iniesta was more cautious in his optimism, recognising the first leg in Turin had been “a terrible result.”

However, he believes Barca have the potential to at least create some doubt in Juventus minds.

“Nowadays teams respect us a lot. I am convinced they know we can cause them problems,” said Iniesta.

“We have the potential, the players and reason to believe we can turn this tie around or at least get close to it.

“We need to create doubts so at some point they see the tie is in danger.

“Everything depends on playing a perfect game in every sense.”

Barca scored three times in the final two minutes plus stoppage time as PSG froze in a grandstand finish six weeks ago.

And Enrique insisted Barca can’t lose belief even if the goals don’t come early against a Juventus defence that has conceded just two in nine Champions League games this season.

“Don’t leave in the 80th minute,” he said in a message to the fans.

“We are going to try until the end. Those of us who experienced the game against PSG have another chance to experience a historic night.

“We have seen that Barca can score three goals in three minutes so we will stay together until the 95th minute.”

Juventus defender Giorgio Chiellini won his latest battle with Luis Suarez in the first leg after the Uruguayan famously bit the Italian at the 2014 World Cup.

Chiellini scored his side’s third goal a week ago after Paulo Dybala’s early double and insists Juventus will need all their experience to stand up to Barca’s “sharks”.

“We will have to play without fear because they are like sharks – they smell blood and they finish you off,” he told Sky Sports Italia.

The visitors were handed a big injury boost as Dybala has been passed fit to play despite picking up an ankle injury in Saturday’s 2-0 win at Pescara.

Barca will welcome back Iniesta and Neymar from the side that beat Real Sociedad 3-2 at the weekend with Messi’s double in that match taking him within two of 500 goals for the club.

Revenge for Mourinho as Man Utd stun Chelsea

April 17, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho masterminded a brilliant and unexpected 2-0 home victory over former club Chelsea on Sunday to breathe new life into the Premier League title race.

Manchester United

Mourinho gambled by resting Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but Marcus Rashford and Ander Herrera’s goals gave United a win that leaves Chelsea just four points above Tottenham Hotspur with six games to play.

Victory at Old Trafford also lifted United to within four points of fourth-place Manchester City, on whom they have a game in hand, ahead of the derby at the Etihad Stadium on April 27.

It was a personal triumph for Mourinho, who saw his side thrashed 4-0 at Chelsea in October and was branded “Judas” by fans of his old club during last month’s FA Cup defeat at Stamford Bridge.

A wet, cold Manchester afternoon was the setting for United to end a run of 12 games without victory against Chelsea, stretching back to a 3-2 away win in October 2012.

Chelsea have now lost twice in four games, having gone down 2-1 at home to Crystal Palace earlier this month, which will give in-form Spurs fresh hope that the Blues may yet collapse as the finishing line nears.

The top two meet at Wembley in the FA Cup semi-finals next weekend in what now looks a significant test of Chelsea’s mettle.

United, meanwhile, will approach Thursday’s Europa League quarter-final second leg at home to Anderlecht, which is poised at 1-1, on the back of their best display under Mourinho.

Chelsea were without goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois due to an ankle problem, while Marcos Alonso succumbed to a virus, bringing Asmir Begovic and Kurt Zouma into their usual first XI.

Mourinho set United up to stop Chelsea, with Herrera and Matteo Darmian tasked with the responsibility of tracking dangermen Eden Hazard and Pedro wherever they went.

But despite Herrera’s chief role as a stifler, he created United’s seventh-minute opener, albeit in contentious circumstances.

He seemed to block Nemanja Matic’s pass with his right hand, but referee Robert Madley played on, enabling Herrera to split the Chelsea defence with a sublime through ball for Rashford.

The 19-year-old raced in behind David Luiz before clipping a shot past Begovic for his ninth goal of the season.

With Chelsea striker Diego Costa spending more time provoking his opponents than taking shots at goal, David de Gea was a virtual spectator between the posts for United.

Costa became embroiled in penalty-box tangles with United centre-backs Eric Bailly and Marcos Rojo and was booked for a late challenge on Paul Pogba.

With the willing Jesse Lingard in support of Rashford, United looked far more lively going forward.

Ashley Young twice spurned presentable shooting opportunities from the edge of the box, while Rashford saw a cross headed onto the roof of the net by Gary Cahill.

Short of a 25-yard drive by Costa that flashed wide in stoppage time, the half-time whistle sounded without Chelsea having offered anything in attack.

Any hopes the visitors had of masterminding a turnaround vanished within four minutes of kick-off in the second half as Herrera doubled United’s lead.

Zouma’s tackle on the burrowing Young sent the ball rolling into Herrera’s path and his drilled effort flicked off Zouma to fly past the grounded Begovic.

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte sent on Cesc Fabregas for Victor Moses, with Pedro moving to wing-back, but still the league leaders toiled, Pedro twice curling shots over De Gea’s bar.

At the other end Rashford remained a constant menace, teeing up Lingard to bend a shot over and twice going close himself, ruffling the side-netting and testing Begovic at his near post.

When he departed in the 82nd minute, with Ibrahimovic taking his place, he was accorded a richly deserved standing ovation.

Barcelona eye another famous comeback with semis in sight

April 17, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Little over a month after producing the greatest comeback in Champions League history, Barcelona need another special turnaround as they face Juventus in the second leg of their quarter-final on Wednesday.

Barcelona

Luis Enrique’s side were taken apart in the first leg in Turin, losing 3-0 to a Juve team inspired by Paulo Dybala, who scored twice.

In the last 16 they became the first team ever to overturn a 4-0 deficit when they beat Paris Saint-Germain 6-1 in the return at the Camp Nou, so fans are hoping for a similar “remuntada” this time.

“We are going to take as many risks as we need to the point that we could go out with eight strikers, as we have nothing to lose,” said Luis Enrique after Saturday’s 3-2 defeat of Real Sociedad.

The Barcelona coach also called for supporters “to have faith in these players who have won everything. This is a squad of champions.”

But he added: “The thing is that we are used to always eating beluga caviar. That can’t go on forever.”

Barca welcome back midfielder Sergio Busquets from suspension, while Juve are hopeful Dybala will be ready after he came off in the 2-0 weekend win at Pescara with a sprained ankle.

“We have four days and we need to be optimistic,” declared coach Massimiliano Allegri.

In contrast to their fierce rivals, Real Madrid are very much on course for a semi-final berth after their 2-1 win away to Bayern Munich last week.

The sides clash at the Santiago Bernabeu in Tuesday’s second leg with the Germans looking to become just the third side to overturn a first-leg home defeat to win a Champions League tie.

Bayern coach Carlo Ancelotti has fitness concerns with leading scorer Robert Lewandowski hopeful of returning from a shoulder injury.

Defenders Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng are also fighting to be fit, while Javi Martinez is suspended.

“We go to Madrid well aware of the fact that nothing is impossible,” Thomas Mueller told Bundesliga.com.

“We’re annoyed any time we don’t win, but we have our own way of playing. No matter what problems or injuries we have to deal with, we’re always able to put a strong team out there on the pitch.”

Gareth Bale is struggling to shake off a calf problem for Real, who have lost just twice in 12 past home meetings with Bayern.

Borussia Dortmund go to Monaco still shaken by the events of last week, when the first leg between the clubs was postponed by 24 hours following the bomb attack on the German team’s bus en route to the game.

Dortmund went on to lose 3-2 to the French league leaders but morale was lifted as they got back to winning ways in the Bundesliga at the weekend, beating Eintracht Frankfurt 3-1.

After that game, the Dortmund players paid tribute to defender Marc Bartra by holding his number five shirt aloft as they celebrated in front of their fans.

Spanish international Bartra had earlier been released from hospital after having surgery on a broken wrist suffered in the attack.

“This gesture shows how important the things off the field are to us at this moment, and that Marc gets better soon and that we are all still here,” said Dortmund captain Marcel Schmelzer.

Monaco, looking to become the first French side in the Champions League semi-finals since Lyon seven years ago, are missing the banned Fabinho as well as Djibril Sidibe, who is recovering from appendicitis.

Leicester City have defensive concerns as they look to turn around a 1-0 deficit when they host last season’s runners-up Atletico Madrid.

Robert Huth is suspended and the Foxes are hoping Wes Morgan can return from a back injury as the English champions look to extend their run in Europe. Atletico have French striker Kevin Gameiro back from a groin injury.

Ronaldo hits 100th European goal as Real Madrid win at Bayern

April 13, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Cristiano Ronaldo netted his 100th European goal on Wednesday to give holders Real Madrid a 2-1 comeback win at 10-man Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-final, first-leg.

Ronaldo

“I wanted to reach this record. To be able to reach this mark is an honour and against a team like Bayern it is even better,” Ronaldo, who scored both goals, told BeIN Sport Spain.

Arturo Vidal headed Bayern into a first-half lead, but then skied a penalty attempt on the stroke of half-time before Ronaldo volleyed the defending champions’ level.

Bayern played the last half an hour a man down after centre-back Javi Martinez was sent off for two fouls on Ronaldo within three minutes of each other.

Four-time world player of the year Ronaldo then slotted in the winner between goalkeeper Manuel Neuer’s legs for the winner 13 minutes from time.

“We believe we can still do it, we were the better team in the first half, could have made it 2-0 or 3-0,” Neuer told ZDF.

But Bayern were outplayed in the second-half and most of Real’s 23 shots on goal came after the break.

“We had everything under control in the first half, but didn’t use the room consistently,” said captain Philipp Lahm. “The tipping point was the red card.”

Security was tight at the Allianz Arena in the wake of Tuesday’s attacks on the Borussia Dortmund team bus and both teams arrived with a heavy police escort.

There was a large police presence and inside the stadium there was polite applause when the announcer made reference to Dortmund’s ordeal in the preceeding 24 hours.

Bayern suffered a blow before kick-off when top-scorer Robert Lewandowski, who has netted 38 goals this season, dropped out with a bruised shoulder and Thomas Muller deputised as striker.

Bayern were also missing injured Germany defender Mats Hummels against Real’s formidable BBC attack – Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Ronaldo.

Bayern went ahead on 25 minutes when playmaker Thiago Alcantara swung in a corner from the right which Vidal powered through Real goalkeeper Keylor Navas’s hands.

The Chile midfielder could have added a second when he headed Arjen Robben’s cross wide of the post soon after.

Real made a poor start, rarely threatening Germany’s goalkeeper Neuer, back after minor foot surgery a fortnight ago.

A strong drive from Ronaldo on 41 minutes which Neuer blocked having palmed a Benzema header onto the woodwork with 18 minutes played were their best first-half chances.

Vidal could have finished with a first-half hat-trick when he stepped up to take a penalty after Dani Carvajal’s handball from a Franck Ribery shot.

However, the Chilean smashed the spot-kick high over the crossbar.

It was a miss Bayern were soon to regret.

Real were level two minutes after the break when Carvajal found space on the right and fired in a cross which Ronaldo volleyed past Neuer.

Bale, who has laboured with an ankle injury recently, came off on 58 minutes and Real raised the tempo after he trudged off.

Having already picked up a yellow card for pulling Ronaldo back on 58 minutes, Martinez was shown a red for again fouling the Portugal captain just three minutes later.

Real’s superstar then hit the winner as substitute Marco Asensio, on for Bale, put in a low pass for Ronaldo to tap the ball home between Neuer’s legs.

Real defender Sergio Ramos had the ball in the Bayern net with time running out, but the goal was ruled offside but the Spaniards have the upper hand for the second leg at home next Tuesday.

Wenger faces new quit calls after Palace loss

April 11, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Arsene Wenger faces renewed calls to resign after Arsenal’s miserable season spiralled out of control with furious fans turning on his flops during their humiliating 3-0 defeat at Crystal Palace.

Crystal Palace

Wenger’s side hit a new low on a chastening evening in south London as struggling Palace condemned the shambolic Gunners to their heaviest Premier League defeat of the season.

Wenger’s side have lost four successive away league games for the first time in his 21-year reign as manager.

Goals from Andros Townsend, Yohan Cabaye and Luka Milivojevic gave Palace their first home win over Arsenal since 1979 and left Wenger in turmoil after his team’s fifth defeat in their last eight league games.

With many Arsenal supporters again demanding Wenger resign, the toxic atmosphere around the north Londoners boiled over as fans refused to give the ball back to Gunners right-back Hector Bellerin when it went into the away section in the second half.

Instead, they berated Bellerin and his team-mates with chants of “you’re not fit to wear the shirt”, with the Spaniard having to be consoled by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain when he was jeered again at the final whistle.

Wenger and his squad were targeted for more abuse when they made their way from the dressing room to the team bus. Arsenal’s shocking surrender leaves them in sixth place, lagging seven points behind fourth placed Manchester City.

With Wenger’s record of leading Arsenal into the Champions League for 19 consecutive years in severe danger, the beleaguered Frenchman acknowledged he has to find a way to avoid the mutinous mood wrecking what may yet prove to be his final season in charge.

“I want the fans to support the team, but I can understand they are extremely frustrated, like we all are,” Wenger said.

“We came with the desire to win the game, but in the decisive moments of the game Palace were sharper.

“To see us lose in that way is disappointing. It’s part of my job to build the confidence. We have a week to do it. it’s our job. we will try to do it.”

Faced with the prospect of missing out on the Champions League for the first time since 1997, Wenger has hardly helped his cause by refusing to confirm if he will sign an extension to the contract which runs out at the end of the season.

The uncertainty over his future has been a major distraction for a team lacking the fighting spirit required to cope with adversity.

Wenger conceded Arsenal’s chances of making the Champions League via a top-four finish look bleak, but he refused to be drawn on whether or not he will stay.

“I think it will be very difficult certainly,” he said. “I don’t want to speak about me tonight. I’m not in the mood.

“At the moment I pay more respect to the fact we had a disappointing result.”

Looking shell-shocked and far less defiant than he often is at such downbeat moments, Wenger must have been devastated by the way the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Theo Walcott went missing when he needed them most.

Arsenal legend Ian Wright claimed Wenger has lost the support of his players and even the Gunners boss admitted Palace had shown more passion.

“They were sharper and more decisive than us,” he said. “In the second half they came out strong and scored again.

“After that it was more difficult. “I don’t say the players gave up. For a long time we were unbeaten away but since we lost a few we don’t have the confidence. “You could sense it had an impact on us after the second goal.”

Palace moved six points clear of the bottom three and boss Sam Allardyce hailed a magical 10 days that also included a win at leaders Chelsea.

“One or two more results and we should be safe, but it’s a massive night for everybody, and a huge week for us all,” he said.

Bayern host Real Madrid in Champions League quarter-final 1st-leg

April 11, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Bayern Munich host Real Madrid in Wednesday’s mouthwatering Champions League quarter-final, first-leg, with Carlo Ancelotti’s Bavarians looking once again to be the Spaniards’ ‘bete noire’.

Real Madrid

And the subplots to the Allianz Arena clash are fascinating.

Bayern boss Carlo Ancelotti coached Real to the 2014 Champions League crown and is up against his former assistant from that triumph, Madrid’s current head coach Zinedine Zidane.

World Cup 2010 winner Xabi Alonso, who also won the 2014 Champions League before joining Bayern, will face his ex-club for the last time before retiring in June.

And Real’s Germany midfielder Toni Kroos is another to be coming up against his former employers.

Ancelotti says “little things will make the difference” between the star-studded squads that will see two goal-scoring giants go head-to-head.

Bayern’s top-scorer Robert Lewandowski, with 38 goals in all competitions this season, is up against Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, with 26 goals from 36 games.

That may be modest by his standards, but Ronaldo has tormented Bayern in the past with four goals in as many games and the Bavarians will be wary, especially with backup from Wales star Gareth Bale and France’s Karim Benzema.

Lewandowski suffered a bruised shoulder in scoring twice in Saturday’s 4-1 hammering of Borussia Dortmund, but expects to be “100 percent” fit.

Bayern are on a Champions League record of 16 straight European wins at the Allianz Arena and that’s a record Dutch winger Arjen Robben is keen to maintain.

“We have to up the ante, we have to signal (to Real) from the first minute that there is nothing to take in Munich and we want to win the game,” he said.

Bayern are looking to recover their ‘bete noire’ nickname, given to them by Real fans after Munich won eight of 14 matches against Real between 2000 and 2012.

All that changed in the 2014 Champions League’s semi-final when the team coached by Pep Guardiola was thrashed 4-0 in Munich, crashing out 5-0 on aggregate as Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos netted twice each.

That defeat remains Bayern’s record home European loss, yet there is no talk of revenge ahead of Wednesday’s clash.

“This is the quarter-finals, but it sounds like a final,” said Bayern captain Philipp Lahm.

“We’re playing against an absolute top team, who have top players in every position. We will have to play to our potential.”

Both sides are missing key defenders, though.

Germany’s Mats Hummels was ruled out after damaging ankle ligaments on Sunday so Jerome Boateng and Javi Martinez will form the centre-back partnership.

Hummels faces a race against time to be back for the return at the Santiago Bernabeu on April 18, while Real have defenders Pepe and Raphael Varane ruled out of both legs.

Pepe suffered a double rib fracture in Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Atletico Madrid, while Varane is out for a month with a hamstring injury.

Right-back Daniel Carvajal trained on his own on Monday and is struggling with a knock.

Bayern received a boost on Monday with Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer back in training following a minor foot operation 10 days ago, while Thomas Mueller is also fit after an ankle injury.

“We’re very confident. It’s a European cracker featuring two top teams,” said Mueller.

“We also notice it outside the club, not only in terms of the media, but also when talking to friends or acquaintances in Munich.

“Everyone’s talking about the game.”

Mourinho’s top four bid in jeopardy

April 8, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Jose Mourinho suggested last weekend that he had considered abandoning a push for the Premier League’s top four to focus on European competition and failure to beat Sunderland on Sunday may see that pledge become a reality.

Jose Mourinho

United’s best hope of qualifying for next season’s Champions League increasingly appears to be by winning the Europa League, with the first leg of their quarter-final against Anderlecht in Belgium on Thursday.

Mourinho’s team face a congested fixture list — the visit to Sunderland will be their third of nine matches during April.

The first two ended in disappointing home draws against West Bromwich Albion and Everton, leaving United four points adrift of the top four with a game in hand.

At least, Mourinho has his leading scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic back.

The former Paris Saint-Germain striker was not at his best against Everton on his return from a three-match domestic ban, but showed the calmness required to convert the 94th-minute penalty that secured United a point.

Ibrahimovic, with 27 goals in all competitions for United this season, is a reassuring presence in an attack that is otherwise struggling.

Anthony Martial, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Marcus Rashford have scored 21 goals between them this season, but only nine of those have come in the league.

Rashford’s last league goal was on September 24, and he has looked desperately short of confidence lately.

A failure to convert chances is certainly a factor in United’s inability to close on the top four.

In the two matches against West Brom and Everton, they managed a total of 36 efforts on goal, yet scored only once.

“Looking to next season, I think it’s a good feeling to know we haven’t lost many matches,” Mourinho said.

“It’s good to know we’re 20 matches undefeated in the Premier League. Ten draws in 10 matches is 10 points; five victories and five defeats in 10 matches is 15 points. But the points are the reality.”

Mourinho is hopeful that Paul Pogba’s return to fitness will help in that respect.

The France midfielder, recovered from a hamstring problem, hit the bar after coming on at half-time against Everton, and is likely to start at Sunderland.

Luke Shaw, who also returned as a substitute on Wednesday after a long spell out of favour, is set to be on the bench again.

Sunderland manager David Moyes has predicted a major summer upheaval as the Wearside club prepare for life in the Championship.

The Scot insists the fight to remain in the Premier League will go on until survival is mathematically impossible, but concedes his rock bottom side require a miracle in order to bridge the 10-point gap to safety with eight games remaining.

Despite imminent relegation, Moyes has been backed to remain at the helm in the hope the former Manchester United manager can lead a successful promotion campaign next season.

The 53-year-old concedes that will involve another massive shake-up in personnel at a club that has become accustomed to huge changes in the wake of fighting four successive successful relegation battles.

Top scorer Jermain Defoe is set to leave on a free, and Sunderland will part-finance their spending by cashing-in on England Under-21 goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, who is a target for several Premier League clubs.

Record signing Didier N’Dong, Lamine Kone, Wahbi Khazri and Jan Kirchhoff are also set to leave if the Wearsiders’ 10-year stay in the top-flight comes to an end in May.

“There will be a change around of players again. Lots of players came in on loan or free transfers last summer and there will be a big turn around of players again,” Moyes said.

“We were short of players at the start of last season so I’d be surprised if it was much different going into the next season.”

Conte warns Chelsea to forget about Spurs

April 8, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Antonio Conte has warned his Chelsea stars not to worry about Tottenham’s results as the Premier League title race hots up this weekend.

Chelsea

With just eight games remaining Chelsea are clinging to a precious seven-point lead over second-placed Tottenham, but the Blues are showing a few glimpses of vulnerability.

Conte’s side ground out a barely deserved 2-1 win over Manchester City on Wednesday just days after crashing to a shock 2-1 home defeat against struggling Crystal Palace.

Meanwhile, Tottenham have reeled off five successive victories, including an incredible escape act at Swansea on Wednesday when they scored three times in the final minutes to clinch a 3-1 success.

With Chelsea playing on Saturday evening at Bournemouth, Tottenham have the chance to turn up the pressure again by temporarily trimming the lead to four points with a win against Watford at White Hart Lane a few hours earlier.

But Conte is adamant his players must forget about Tottenham’s form because Chelsea have their fate in their own hands.

“This race is open. I think now I can see two teams, Chelsea and Tottenham, in this race,” Conte said.

“There’s always pressure. If they win, if they lose, if they draw. It’s the same.

“It’s very important for us to look at ourselves and not the others. Tottenham’s result is important, but our results are the most important things.”

The Premier League era is littered with epic collapses from teams who thought the title was theirs and, with Chelsea needing 18 points to be certain of top spot, Blues midfielder Cesc Fabregas isn’t getting carried away yet.

“We’ve been saying it since the beginning of the season: it’s one game at a time,” he said.

“We have to worry about ourselves, not what the others are doing. As long as we keep winning then we don’t have to worry.”

Tottenham’s title hopes looked over until Dele Alli equalised in the 88th minute before Son Heung-Min and Christian Eriksen struck in stoppage time to kill off Swansea.

The wild celebrations from boss Mauricio Pochettino, his coaching staff and Tottenham’s players and fans underlined their relief at a result that allows them to continue dreaming of a first English title since 1961.

Having choked last season when they failed to catch champions Leicester in the closing weeks, Pochettino’s side are back in the hunt and Tottenham defender Jan Vertonghen said: “Chelsea look very strong but we can’t stop pushing and dreaming of the league.

“They have a couple of difficult games coming up. We have to keep winning and hopefully they get a bit stressed.

“I don’t know what is necessary to win the league, maybe a bit of luck, but I think this group has massive quality and is very special.”

The battle for Champions League qualification via the top four seems certain to go down to the wire.

Third-placed Liverpool, six points above fifth-placed Arsenal, can’t afford another slip when they face Stoke after allowing Bournemouth a late equaliser in a midweek 2-2 draw.

Reds boss Jurgen Klopp urged his team to emulate Chelsea’s steely streak when points are on the line.

“Probably if it was Chelsea, for example, the opponent would not have the ball three times in the last 20 minutes, I think. We don’t have this experience,” Klopp said.

Fourth-placed Manchester City, who host Hull, are without a win in four games and sit only four points above Arsenal, who have a game in hand and travel to Crystal Palace on Monday.

Manchester United are sixth and head to bottom-of-the-table Sunderland aiming to add to their former manager David Moyes’s problems.

Home draws against West Bromwich Albion and Everton have damaged United’s chances of making the top four and a win at the Stadium of Light is essential.

Jose Mourinho’s side can also push Sunderland — a hefty 10 points from safety — closer to the Championship at the end of a week in which Moyes was forced to apologise after threating to “slap” a female reporter.

Atletico close on Real Madrid ahead of derby

April 5, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Atletico Madrid’s fine form continued as Filipe Luis scored the winner in a 1-0 win over Real Sociedad to close to within seven points of La Liga leaders Real Madrid on Tuesday.

Atletico

Luis had scored his first goal of the season in Saturday’s 2-0 win at Malaga and netted for the second consecutive game for the first time in his career by rounding off a fine team move on 28 minutes.

Fernando Torres, Yannick Carrasco and Angel Correa all passed up chances to add to Atletico’s advantage, but they held on to move three points clear of Sevilla in the battle for third.

Real Madrid still have two games in hand on Atletico, but the two face each other in the Madrid derby on Saturday.

Real and Barcelona are in action on Wednesday when they take on Leganes and Sevilla respectively.

Atletico will travel to the Santiago Bernabeu brimming with confidence after a fifth straight La Liga win.

“Other than the opening 15 minutes when they dominated the ball, we imposed our tempo, pressed well high up the pitch and created chances,” said Atletico boss Diego Simeone.

“It is a very important win.”

Antoine Griezmann came close twice in quick succession against his former club as his first effort was deflected behind before Geronimo Rulli got down well to save low to his right.

The French international was also involved in the only goal as Luis exchanged passes with he and Torres before slotting home.

Torres then somehow failed to double Atletico’s lead as he turned Carrasco’s low cross onto the post with the goal gaping an then fired the rebound into the side-netting.

Carrasco was also then wasteful as he shot too close to Rulli after an unselfish cutback by Griezmann.

Griezmann was replaced by Angel Correa with 19 minutes remaining as Diego Simeone looked ahead to Saturday’s derby and the visit of Leicester in their Champions League quarter-final, first leg next midweek.

And Correa also passed up a huge chance to seal the three points when he blasted wide with just Rulli to beat 10 minutes later.

A third defeat in four games sees Sociedad slip to seventh as Villarreal and Athletic Bilbao boosted their chances of Europa League qualification.

Bilbao were 2-0 victors over Espanyol thanks to Aritz Aduriz’s first-half double to move up to sixth.

Villarreal are in fifth as Adrian Lopez scored the only goal in a 1-0 win at Real Betis.

Misfiring Manchester United get Ibrahimovic boost

April 3, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s return from suspension may be just the lift that Manchester United need as they attempt to improve their Premier League home form against Everton on Tuesday.

Zlatan

The former Paris Saint-Germain striker, United’s leading scorer this season, has missed three domestic matches through suspension – in which time Jose Mourinho’s team have been knocked out of the FA Cup and lost ground in the race for a top-four finish.

Ibrahimovic was certainly missed on Saturday as United drew at home in the league for the eighth time this season, as they were held 0-0 by West Bromwich Albion.

Time after time, Mourinho’s men have dominated possession at Old Trafford against visiting teams, yet failed to make their superiority count.

So it was at the weekend, as United enjoying 75 per cent of the possession yet managed only three shots on target.

In United’s defence, they were without not only Ibrahimovic, but also Ander Herrera, who was suspended too, plus injury victims Paul Pogba, Juan Mata, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, yet it was still a hugely disappointing display.

Mourinho was particularly angry with his front four of Jesse Lingard, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, and may make changes beyond bringing back Ibrahimovic.

This is a busy period for United, who are scheduled to play nine matches during April.

If there is no sign of improvement in Premier League form against Everton or at Sunderland this coming Sunday, Mourinho has indicated that he will put his focus on winning the Europa League, and securing a Champions League place that way.

“After Sunderland, the Europa League comes, and then I don’t know,” he said.

“Then, it’s possible that you see me play in the Premier League with a team where I’m going to protect the players that I consider fundamental for the Europa League.

“But only, only if the results in the next matches put us in a situation where mathematically, it becomes almost impossible to do it.”

- Heavy criticism -

France midfielder Pogba should return against Everton, having been able to take part in a training session on the pitch after Saturday’s match.

He was left out of the squad against West Brom as a precaution because of the hamstring injury that kept him out of France’s matches against Luxembourg and Spain during the recent international break.

Herrera is also available after his ban, but Mata, Smalling and Jones will be longer-term absentees; the Spanish winger is expected to miss the remainder of the season following groin surgery last week.

Everton are seeking improvement themselves, having performed poorly in losing 3-1 at Liverpool in Saturday’s Merseyside derby.

Ross Barkley has come in for particularly heavy criticism in the media, having been very fortunate not to be sent off at Anfield for a dangerous challenge on Dejan Lovren when already on a booking.

Everton manager Ronald Koeman did say in public after the game that he was proud of his team’s performance.

But they have played much better than that over the last three months, losing just two of their last 13 league matches and looking comfortable in seventh place.

Koeman is short of defensive options, with Seamus Coleman recovering from a broken leg and Ramiro Funes Mori set to miss the final weeks of the season after suffering a knee injury while playing for Argentina.

A back three of Matthew Pennington, Ashley Williams and Phil Jagielka did not work too well at Anfield, but Koeman may have to stick with that set-up.

“We won’t be taking too many positives from Saturday, but we’ve got a big game on Tuesday,” said Jagielka.

Hazard and Chelsea look to switch focus back to title race

March 31, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Chelsea will aim to resume their steady march towards the Premier League title after an international break in which the focus was on the future of Eden Hazard.

Hazard

The 26-year-old Belgian star sat out Chelsea’s last game at Stoke City as well as Belgium’s fixtures during the recess with a calf problem but should return for the visit of Crystal Palace to Stamford Bridge.

The forward, though, has still found himself the centre of attention following reports this week he is a target for Real Madrid.

Hazard has been one of the main factors in Chelsea’s dominance of the Premier League table this season -– Antonio Conte’s side face Palace sitting ten points clear, with ten games remaining –- after rediscovering the form he showed in the 2015 title triumph.

Chelsea are determined to hold on to the player but the interest from Spain has provided an unwanted distraction as Conte attempts to maintain his team’s concentration during the run-in.

But the head coach’s efforts won’t have been helped by comments made this week by former Real Madrid president Ramon Calderon who insisted Hazard’s future will be decided by the player himself.

Calderon told talkSPORT radio station: “Chelsea aren’t a selling club, so it wouldn’t be easy, but as always it would depend on the wishes of the player. If he wants to leave, he will leave — that’s always the point.”

There has been no indication Hazard wants to leave and Conte will expect the player’s response against a much-improved Palace to underline his commitment to remaining at Stamford Bridge.

The return of striker Diego Costa, who missed Spain’s meeting with France because of ankle injury, will also help Conte’s side pick up from where they left off before the break.

The victory at Stoke was secured by a late goal from Gary Cahill that came as a blow to second-placed Tottenham who have been hoping to capitalise on any slips made by Conte’s side.

With an FA Cup semi-final meeting with Tottenham also looming at the end of April, Conte remains on course for a league and cup double in his first season in English football after leaving the post of Italy coach last summer.

A few weeks ago, the visit of Palace would have been viewed as a routine three points for the Blues.

However, they have shown significant signs of improvement recently with manager Sam Allardyce confident he has plugged the defensive holes that contributed to the team’s fall into the bottom three.

Four victories in the last six games -– each secured on the back of a clean sheet -– have moved Allardyce’s side four points and two places clear of the relegation zone.

New signings Mamadou Sakho and Luka Milivojevic have been credited with adding steel to the side.

Wilfried Zaha’s form has helped reignite the debate about the winger’s decision to reject England, despite winning two caps in friendly internationals, and commit himself to Ivory Coast.

Speaking after last Sunday’s World Cup qualifier against Lithuania, England coach Gareth Southgate appeared to suggest Zaha had imposed a timescale for his selection by England.

However, the comments drew a strong response in a statement that came through the player’s agent

Will Salthouse said: “Wilfried did not impose a timescale or set a date by which he had to be selected by England, there was no ‘disappearing egg timer’. The ‘private’ meeting with Mr Southgate was very amicable.

“It was Wilfried’s personal choice and it was his right as a senior player to accept the opportunity to represent his nation of birth and that of his family heritage.

“His ‘desire’ or ‘passion’ should never have been publicly questioned for making that decision.”

Brazil book FIFA World Cup berth, Argentina tumble

March 30, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Brazil became the first team to qualify for the World Cup on Tuesday after beating Paraguay to clinch an eighth consecutive victory as Argentina’s campaign stumbled after the shock suspension of Lionel Messi.

Brazil

Five-time champions Brazil had been left waiting in suspense after goals from Neymar, Philippe Coutinho and Marcelo handed them a 3-0 win over the Paraguayans at Sao Paulo’s Arena Corinthians.

But Uruguay’s upset 2-1 defeat to Peru in the day’s final South American qualifier combined with other results meant Brazil are mathematically guaranteed a place at next year’s finals in Russia.

The qualification completes an astonishing turnaround for Brazil, who less than a year ago were in crisis after taking only nine points from six games.

That run of results had left the Brazilians outside the qualifying places in sixth place.

The further embarrassment of a first round exit at last year’s Copa America Centenario only deepened the sense of despondency.

However the sacking of former coach Dunga and the appointment of former Corinthians coach Tite was the catalyst for a Brazilian resurgence.

That revival saw Brazil take maximum points from their next eight qualifying games, leaving them nine points clear on Tuesday with four games left.

“When I look at my family — the players — and when we talk to the fans and see how happy they are, that’s when you think ‘I’m part of something very special,'” Tite said after Brazil’s qualification was confirmed.

Against Paraguay, Brazil were already in party mode, with Coutinho opening the scoring on 34 minutes following a deft one-two with China-based midfielder Paulinho.

Neymar had a chance to make it 2-0 in the 53rd minute from the penalty spot only to see his kick saved by Anthony Silva.

On 64 minutes Neymar doubled Brazil’s tally, collecting the ball deep inside his own half and setting off on a surging run down the left flank.

Neymar’s dribble ended with him curling in a shot which took a slight deflection on its way into the Paraguayan goal. Real Madrid defender Marcelo added a late third to seal Brazil’s win.

While Brazil celebrated, Argentina and Messi were left digesting another stumble in their progress towards Russia as they slumped to a 2-0 defeat in La Paz.

Argentina had been rocked just hours before kick-off after confirmation Messi had been hit with a four-match ban following a ruling from disciplinary chiefs at world governing body FIFA in Zurich.

The Barcelona superstar was stunned after being suspended for four of Argentina’s five remaining World Cup qualification matches for swearing at an official in a game against Chile last week.

Messi’s suspension left Argentina coach Edgardo Bauza forced to make a hasty reshuffle to his starting line-up, bringing in Atletico Madrid’s Angel Correa in attack while leaving Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero on the bench.

But Argentina, clearly struggling in the thin air of La Paz, which is 3,600 metres (11,800 feet) above sea level, were well beaten at the Estadio Hernando Siles.

Bolivia, desperate for three points, tore into Argentina from the opening whistle, spending long periods camped around their opponents’ area.

Juan Carlos Arce opened the scoring for Bolivia on 31 minutes, heading in Pablo Escobar’s inviting cross before Marcelo Martins doubled the home side’s lead early the second half.

The defeat leaves Argentina languishing just outside the automatic qualifying places following results elsewhere Tuesday.

Chile moved up to fourth place with a 3-1 win over Venezuela in Santiago, Arsenal star Alexis Sanchez opening the scoring with a stunning early free-kick. Esteban Paredes scored twice for Chile to give the host a 3-0 lead before Salomon Rondon pulled a goal back for Venezuela.

In Quito, Real Madrid star James Rodriguez scored one goal and set up another for Juan Cuadrado as Colombia beat Ecuador 2-0.

Dutch suffer World Cup shock, Ronaldo in 70-goal landmark

March 26, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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The Netherlands’ hopes of reaching the World Cup finals suffered a major setback on Saturday when the three-time runners-up slumped to a shock 2-0 defeat to Bulgaria.

Robben

The loss left the Dutch six points behind Group A leaders France, who beat Luxembourg 3-1, and down in fourth spot, three back from Sweden and two off Bulgaria with just the group winners guaranteed a place in the 2018 finals in Russia.

“What can I tell you? We came here with good intentions, but it has become a nightmare,” Dutch skipper Arjen Robben said.

Elsewhere, Cristiano Ronaldo took his international tally to 70 goals as European champions Portugal beat Hungary 3-0 to stay in second spot behind Switzerland in Group B.

Belgium needed a goal two minutes from time by Romelu Lukaku to salvage a 1-1 draw against nine-man Greece as they stayed two points clear in Group H, although Roberto Martinez’s team lost their 100 percent record in the process.

In Sofia, Bulgaria stunned the Dutch with two goals in the first 20 minutes, both coming from Spas Delev.

Delev pounced on a mistake by 17-year-old Matthijs De Ligt, Holland’s youngest debutant since 1931, who misjudged a pass and allowed the striker to slot the ball past Jeroen Zoet.

Delev then made it 2-0 when he unleashed a stinging right-foot drive past Zoet.

The Dutch dominated large parts of the rest of the game but were thwarted by a solid Bulgarian defence while goalkeeper Nikolay Mihaylov pulled off a super save in the second period to deny Davy Klaassen.

Group A table-toppers France, the 1998 champions and last year’s Euro 2016 runners-up, saw Olivier Giroud open the scoring in Luxembourg just before the half-hour mark.

Luxembourg levelled after 34 minutes thanks to Aurelien Joachim’s penalty, his country’s first goal against France in 39 years.

But the minnows’ joy was short-lived as Atletico Madrid striker Antoine Griezmann restored France’s lead, also from the spot, just four minutes later.

Arsenal star Giroud scored his second of the evening after 77 minutes after being set up by Benjamin Mendy.

“With us, Olivier often scores goals even if he is having a difficult time with his club. We gave him the crosses and he was very efficient,” said France coach Didier Deschamps.

In Lisbon, Portugal saw off Hungary, a team they shared six goals with at Euro 2016.

The win kept Portugal in second place in Group B, three points behind Switzerland, who earlier preserved their 100 percent record with a fifth win in five games, a 1-0 home victory against Latvia.

Porto striker Andre Silva opened the scoring after 30 minutes, converting a pass from Raphael Guerreiro for his fifth goal in six games for Portugal.

Six minutes later, skipper Ronaldo doubled the lead with a superb left-footed finish and the Real Madrid superstar made it 3-0 on 65 minutes with a clever free-kick for his 70th international goal.

“We want to go the World Cup so we have to win our next five matches, they are all finals,” said Portugal coach Fernando Santos.

Belgium stayed top of Group H but only after struggling to a 1-1 draw with Greece.

Missing the injured Eden Hazard, Belgium lacked a creative spark in Brussels and they were made to pay when Greece grabbed the lead just 20 seconds into the second period when Benfica striker Kostas Mitroglou latched on to a long ball to fire home his third goal of the qualifying campaign.

Greece were reduced to 10 men after 65 minutes when Panagiotis Tachtsidis was red carded for a crude lunge on defender Toby Alderweireld.

Everton striker Lukaku drove home from close range in the 89th minute to grab a share of the spoils before Georgios Tzavelas was sent-off in injury time.

“I feel a lot of frustration. With the amount of individual talent we have at our disposal, we have to show more,” said Martinez.

Earlier on Saturday, Sweden crushed Belarus 4-0 to move to 10 points in Group A, three behind France, with Emil Forsberg scoring twice.

In Group H, Bosnia-Herzegovina also went on a goal spree with a 5-0 win over minnows Gibraltar, who have now conceded 22 goals in five games.

Brazil on brink, Messi revives Argentina in World Cup qualifiers

March 24, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Brazil thrashed Uruguay to move to the brink of the World Cup finals on Thursday as Lionel Messi got Argentina’s faltering qualification campaign back on track with the only goal to sink Chile.

Messi

A superb hat-trick from China-based midfielder Paulinho powered Brazil to a 4-1 drubbing of the Uruguayans in Montevideo to leave the five-time world champions all-but-certain of a place at next year’s finals in Russia.

The Brazilians now lead the 10-team round-robin competition by seven points after their latest win.

The top four teams in the standings qualify automatically and with only five rounds remaining, it would take a freakish set of results to deny Brazil.

Uruguay had taken the lead after only nine minutes when Brazil goalkeeper Alisson brought down Paris Saint-Germain striker Edinson Cavani for a penalty.

Cavani got to his feet and drilled the spot-kick beyond the Brazilian goalkeeper to put Uruguay 1-0 up.

But Paulinho produced a thunderbolt 10 minutes later, uncorking a screamer into the top corner from 25 yards to level at 1-1.

The midfielder then stabbed home Philippe Coutinho’s shot in the 51st minute to make it 2-1.

Barcelona superstar Neymar added a third with a sublime chip in the 75th minute to effectively settle the contest.

Paulinho completed his hat-trick in injury time, turning in a low cross with his chest to cap a fine display.

Uruguay, who were missing the suspended Luis Suarez, remain in second place in the standings.

“To come here and win by any score is a great result,” Brazil coach Tite said afterwards. “Playing in this stadium and beating Uruguay is difficult for anyone.”

Uruguay skipper Diego Godin said the final scoreline was not an accurate reflection of the game.

“We trained well, we looked strong,” the Atletico Madrid defender said. “It’s a bitter result. We had chances. This doesn’t reflect the game.”

“But this is a wake-up call.”

In Buenos Aires, Argentina had entered their clash with Chile desperately needing to take all three points to revive their campaign.

And captain Messi duly delivered when it mattered as Argentina avenged last year’s Copa America Centenario final defeat to the Chileans with a 1-0 win.

Messi stroked home his penalty on 16 minutes after veteran Chile defender Jose Fuenzalida brought down Angel Di Maria with a clumsy challenge.

Last year, Messi was left distraught after missing his penalty in the shootout at the Copa America Centenario in New York.

But the diminutive maestro made no mistake on Thursday, drilling his spot-kick beyond former Barcelona teammate Claudio Bravo to secure a vital three points for the two-time world champions.

Argentina finished the game on the back foot as Chile swarmed forward in search of an equaliser — a successful rearguard action that delighted coach Edgardo Bauza.

“It was great that we won against a good team, but for me the best thing was the way we fought,” Bauza said.

The win leaves Argentina in third place overall in the 10-team qualifying competition with 22 points from 13 games.

But the defeat means two-time reigning South American champions Chile are still struggling to qualify for Russia.

The Chileans remain outside the automatic qualification places.

- Colombia back in hunt -

Colombia, the 2014 World Cup quarter-finalists, boosted their chances of qualification with a 1-0 win over Bolivia in Barranquilla.

Real Madrid star James Rodriguez bundled in the rebound from his own late penalty to claim the points.

Rodriguez rammed home his finish at the second attempt after Bolivia goalkeeper Carlos Lampe had saved the playmaker’s spotkick on 83 minutes.

Until Rodriguez’s late winner, it looked as if Bolivia had done enough to earn a point, defending in depth and frustrating the hosts at every turn.

But Bolivia’s luck ran out when Cristian Coimbra brought down winger Juan Cuadrado with a clumsy challenge to give Rodriguez his chance for glory.

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