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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.

Bale seeks World Cup lift-off against Ireland

March 23, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Gareth Bale’s Wales hope to recapture the spirit of Euro 2016 when they attempt to revive their flagging World Cup qualifying campaign against Ireland in Dublin on Friday.

Bale

Having stunned Europe by reaching the semi-finals of last year’s European Championship in France, Wales trail leaders Ireland by four points after four games in UEFA qualifying Group D.

However, whereas Ireland are blighted by injuries and suspensions, Wales are at full strength, with Real Madrid talisman Bale fit and firing following a spell on the sidelines with an ankle injury.

“We are a very good team when we’re at our best and at our strongest,” said Wales coach Chris Coleman.

“We need these players on the pitch consistently and we’re in pretty good condition. The squad might have looked different two or three months ago.

“But we’ve got players back and I’ve picked those who have been on the front foot and are most ready for this challenge.”

Wales launched their bid to reach a first World Cup since 1958 with a breezy 4-0 home win over Moldova, but they have since run into trouble.

A creditable 2-2 draw in Austria was followed by two frustrating 1-1 stalemates at home to Georgia and Serbia, Wales being pegged back after having taken the lead in both those games.

It left them third in the group, two points below second-place Serbia.

With only the top team in each group guaranteed to qualify for next year’s tournament in Russia, it means Wales desperately need to get back to winning ways at the Aviva Stadium.

Ireland have won their last three group games, after opening with a 2-2 draw away to Serbia, but assistant manager Roy Keane knows their players will have to be at their very best to stop Bale.

“Do you not think other players and coaches have tried to come up with a plan before?” asked the former Manchester United captain.

“But the top players seem to figure it out and they’ll affect the game. Bale has done that for a number of years for Madrid and on the big occasions.

“He’s a good player and we look forward to challenging ourselves against him.”

Bale has already scored four goals in qualifying and needs two more to equal Ian Rush’s Welsh scoring record of 28 goals.

Coleman has also been boosted by the return to fitness of Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey following a calf strain.

The game could see 17-year-old Liverpool forward Ben Woodburn make his senior Wales debut.

Woodburn became Liverpool’s youngest ever goal-scorer in November when he scored against Leeds United in the League Cup and has previously represented Wales at youth level.

But Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has questioned the timing of his call-up and expressed reservations about Coleman’s failure to call him to speak about the player.

Woodburn is also coveted by England, but will not be eligible to play for anyone else once he has represented Wales in a competitive fixture.

Ireland coach Martin O’Neill goes into the game missing a host of first-team regulars.

Shane Duffy, Ciaran Clark, Wes Hoolahan, Harry Arter and Daryl Murphy are all injured and Robbie Brady suspended, while Everton midfielder James McCarthy is doubtful with a hamstring problem.

Ireland are due to play tribute to Derry City captain Ryan McBride, who died suddenly on Sunday at the age of 27.

West Bromwich Albion winger James McClean, a close friend of McBride, was given leave to visit his family ahead of McBride’s funeral on Thursday.

McClean will wear the number five shirt in tribute to McBride during the game.

Fairytale end for Podolski as Germany set record

March 23, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Lukas Podolski admitted his Germany farewell could not have been scripted better after netting the superb winner in the 1-0 friendly win over England.

Podolski

It was only fitting that the Galatasaray forward should claim his 49th goal on his 130th — and final — international appearance in Wednesday’s emotional farewell.

“The way it finished up was like in a film,” said Podolski, who smashed home the winning goal on 69 minutes, then came off to thunderous applause with six minutes left.

“Dear god, or someone else, gave me a strong left foot and I used it tonight. I am proud of the last 13 years,” beamed Podolski, who will join Japan’s Vissel Kobe next season.

“It was a great game, a great result and a great way to say goodbye.”

Podolski captained the world champions to their first win over old rivals England on home soil since 1987.

The victory was also sweet for head coach Joachim Loew as it was a record seventh game without conceding a goal for Germany, a run starting since their Euro 2016 semi-final defeat to France.

It came with Loew missing first-choice players like goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, Jerome Boateng, Sami Khedira, Mesut Ozil, Marco Reus and Mario Gomez.

However, Gareth Southgate’s England had the better of the world champions in the first-half before Podolski’s winner.

Adam Lallana’s powerful shot hit the post with 30 minutes gone. Then Dele Alli forced Germany goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen into a reflex save but it stayed goalless at the break.

Podolski turned the friendly Germany’s way with the superb winner on 69 minutes.

Andre Schuerrle laid the ball off for Podolski, whose bullet shot off his left foot gave England goalkeeper Joe Hart no chance from 25 metres out.

“Normally fairytales don’t happen in football but that was one for him,” Southgate said of Podolski’s stunning goal.

“It’s an outstanding achievement in terms of the goals and caps he has.

“It was an incredible strike, but from Joe Hart’s point of view it was pretty unstoppable.”

“But the result fulfilled a purpose for us.”

Podolski made his debut in 2004 and was ever-present during Loew’s decade in charge since taking over as head coach after the 2006 World Cup.

The 31-year-old Podolski made only two replacement appearances at the 2014 World Cup, but was an important motivating presence under Loew.

“The goal was typically ‘Poldi’, but special players deserve a special farewell like this, which was great for him,” said Loew.

“We had thought of taking him off earlier, but he said during the break that he wanted to play as long as possible.”

Loew had included just three World Cup winners — Toni Kroos, Mats Hummels and Podolski — in his starting line-up.

He fielded an experimental team as striker Timo Werner, 21, made his debut.

“We were very nervous in the first half, but some of them were playing together for the first time,” added Loew.

Both Kroos and Thomas Mueller, who came off the bench, agreed that Podolski’s farewell could not have been scripted better.

“Things like that only happen in football,” said Kroos. “Against a backdrop like that came a goal like that — unbelievable.

“That wasn’t a goal they gifted to us. It was a lovely thing for Lukas.

“We showed as a team in the second half that we still have the quality, even when a few of us are missing.”

Mueller said it was a fitting end to a fitting career.

“I could not have written a better screenplay, even if it was a bit too cheesy for me as a director,” quipped Mueller.

“It wasn’t an unusual goal for him, but he should soak up the moment and enjoy it.

“Normally, a stadium is empty ten minutes after the end of a match, but this time everyone wanted to see Lukas.

“If you have played 130 internationals, you have to have had something special.”

Schweinsteiger signs for Chicago Fire: Man Utd

March 21, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Former Germany captain Bastian Schweinsteiger has signed for Major League Soccer side the Chicago Fire from Premier League giants Manchester United, the English club confirmed on Tuesday.

Schweinsteiger

Schweinsteiger, a key member of Germany’s 2014 World Cup-winning team, heads to the United States after an unhappy stint with Manchester United, where he has been frozen out by manager Jose Mourinho.

The 32-year-old, who scored 24 goals in 121 appearances for Germany, will join Chicago subject to a medical and a visa being obtained.

“I am sad to leave so many friends at Manchester United,” Schweinsteiger told the Manchester United website.

“But I am grateful to the club for allowing me the chance to take up the challenge at Chicago Fire.”

Schweinsteiger, who is married to now retired former women’s tennis world number one Ana Ivanovic, expressed his thanks to Mourinho and his team-mates.

“I have enjoyed working with the manager, the players and staff here and wish them all the best in the future,” he said.

“But I have to reserve special thanks to the United fans –- whose support has been a very special part of my time in Manchester.

“I was delighted to be part of the squad that won the FA Cup for them last season and will always remember their energy and their passion. Now is the right time for me to start a new chapter in Chicago and I am looking forward to it.”

United kept their tribute to one line with no comment from Mourinho.

“Everybody at United would like to wish Bastian the very best of luck in his new career in the United States,” the club said on its website.

On Monday Chicago Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez said the signing of Schweinsteiger brought added responsibilities and expectations for the team’s performance.

“We’re adding someone who has won at every level, including the very highest levels, and has done so in a way that is consistent with our values,” Rodriguez was quoted as saying by the Chicago Tribune.

“We as a club will now be forced to hold ourselves to a higher standard, an accountability level.

“Previously, I think we could satisfy ourselves with what is known domestically. Now we need to rise to a standard that is set more internationally.”

- ‘I’m convinced by the club’s vision’ -

Schweinsteiger played his entire club career with German giant Bayern Munich before joining Manchester United in 2015.

The Tribune cited an unidentified club source as saying that Schweinsteiger had signed a one-year deal worth $4.5 million, a salary that makes him one of the highest-paid players in the MLS.

“Throughout my career, I’ve always sought opportunities where I hoped to make a positive impact and to help make something great,” Schweinsteiger said in a statement quoted by the Tribune.

“My move to Chicago Fire is no different. Through my conversations with Nelson and (head coach Veljko Paunovic), I’m convinced by the club’s vision and philosophy and I want to help them with this project.”

Paunovic said the seeds of Schweinsteiger’s move had been sown by a lunch with the German star in Manchester last year.

“The conversation was so spontaneous, so natural and so inspiring for both sides,” Paunovic said.

“At one point it became a very personal conversation. I think that also helped for both sides to understand how we can help each other and how much value we can get from this for both sides.”

The Chicago team has endured a mixed start to the new MLS season, taking four points from their opening two games before suffering a 4-0 thumping by expansion side Atlanta last weekend.

Chicago’s lone success in the MLS Cup came in 1998 and for the past four seasons the team has failed to reach the playoffs.

Manchester City charged with failing to control players: FA

March 21, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Manchester City face a charge of failing to control their players by the Football Association for their surrounding the referee Michael Oliver when he awarded a penalty in the 1-1 draw with Liverpool on Sunday.

Sterling

Oliver, the same referee who was surrounded by Manchester United players in the fractious FA Cup quarter-final with Chelsea last week and resulted in the club being fined £20,000 (23,000 euros, $24,700), awarded a penalty to Liverpool when he judged Gael Clichy to have fouled Roberto Firmino in the 50th minute.

“It is alleged that in or around the 50th minute of the fixture, the club failed to ensure its players conducted themselves in an orderly fashion,” said an FA statement.

James Milner tucked away the penalty to give the visitors the lead but Sergio Aguero levelled with just over 20 minutes remaining to ensure City salvaged a point in the gripping match at Etihad Stadium.

Oliver booked both Clichy and his Spanish team-mate David Silva — who was the most forthright in protesting — after awarding the penalty.

City have until 1800GMT on Thursday to respond to the charge.

Leicester’s Champions League breakthrough keeps fairytale alive

March 15, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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In progressing to the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time, Leicester City preserved a golden thread stretching back all the way to last season’s miraculous Premier League title success.

Leicester City

The thread has worn close to breaking in recent weeks, with Leicester’s perilous slide towards the relegation zone costing popular manager Claudio Ranieri his job.

But after overcoming a 2-1 deficit to beat Sevilla in the Champions League last 16, the sense of fearlessness that became their hallmark a year ago has returned.

“They looked so fluid and had such amazing passion and determination,” the club’s former manager David Pleat told BBC Radio 5 Live after Leicester’s 2-0 win over Sevilla on Tuesday.

“I don’t think they would want either Real Madrid or Barcelona in the quarter-final. But who would have thought they would win the title last year? So whoever they face, who knows?”

As well as Barcelona and Real Madrid, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund also lie in wait in Friday’s last-eight draw.

Atletico Madrid and Manchester City are in pole position to join them ahead of the final two last 16 second legs later on Wednesday.

Asked who he hoped to avoid in the quarter-finals, Juve’s emblematic captain Gianluigi Buffon replied: “Leicester.”

The prospect of a genuine European superpower arriving at the King Power Stadium will further help to restore some of the magic dust that had been rubbed off amid Leicester’s domestic toils.

Eliminated from both cup competitions and fighting to keep themselves above the Premier League bottom three, the Champions League represents their only hope of prolonging last season’s fairytale.

Wednesday’s Daily Mail back-page headline said Leicester could “CARRY ON DREAMING”, while The Guardian said victory over Sevilla had seen Leicester “write a new fairytale”.

The Times said Leicester were “back in fantasy land”.

The great irony of Leicester’s resurgence is that it has taken the dismissal of Ranieri, architect of the title win, for the players to start playing like they had last season.

They had already found the Champions League to be well-suited to their preferred contain-and-counter strategy, however, having recorded four wins and kept four clean sheets during the group phase.

Ranieri tried to introduce greater sophistication to Leicester’s tactics, notably deploying Riyad Mahrez in a central role in the 2-1 first-leg loss to Sevilla, which was to prove his last game.

But the instant impact enjoyed by his successor Craig Shakespeare suggests Leicester’s players are both happier and more effective with the simple 4-4-2 formula used to such devastating effect last season.

“I think we have to play to our strengths,” said Shakespeare, Ranieri’s former assistant.

“You have to be concerned about the opposition, and know their strengths, but as a football club, we have to know our strengths.

“You saw that in abundance in the performance (against Sevilla), in terms of desire, but we can play a bit as well.

“(Beating Sevilla) epitomises what we’re about.”

Tactical factors only go so far in explaining the Leicester turnaround under Shakespeare, which started with successive 3-1 wins over Liverpool and Hull City.

The sight of Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki once again breathlessly harrying opposition centre-backs suggested the change has been as much psychological as anything else.

“There had to be something wrong there,” observed former England right-back Danny Mills, a Champions League semi-finalist with Leeds United in 2001.

“All those fans who thought it was a disgrace that Ranieri was sacked, they have got to eat some humble pie.”

With Leicester still only three points above the Premier League relegation zone, their players cannot afford to be distracted by dreams of European glory for too long.

But with the Champions League music guaranteed to boom out around the King Power on at least one further occasion this season, the Leicester fairytale may yet have more magic in store.

Conte, Mourinho feud boils over after FA Cup clash

March 14, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Antonio Conte slammed Manchester United’s cynical attempts to intimidate Chelsea in his side’s bitter FA Cup quarter-final win, but Jose Mourinho hit back at his rival by insisting he remains the Blues’ best ever manager.

Chelsea

Chelsea boss Conte was furious with United’s aggressive approach after Ander Herrera was sent off for two fouls on Eden Hazard in Monday’s 1-0 victory at Stamford Bridge.

Marcos Rojo escaped a red card for a spiteful stamp on Hazard late in the second half at Stamford Bridge, but the United defender is likely to face a ban if the Football Association retrospectively look at the offence.

Conte was so wound up by the constant fouling he became embroiled in a touchline row with United boss Mourinho that ended with the rivals being separated by the fourth official.

Asked what he made of United’s tactics, Conte said: “My players want to play football, but for 25 minutes it was impossible.

“I think only that Eden got a lot of kicks. I don’t think I’m crazy.

“He started the match receiving kicks and he finished it receiving kicks.

“This is the truth and I don’t think one person can say this didn’t happen. It’s not football for me.

“It could be United’s tactic. Sometimes when you play against players with great talent you try to intimidate them.

“The referee must try to protect these type of players because they can go out with a bad injury.”

It was a chastening return to west London for former Chelsea boss Mourinho, who endured his old club’s fans calling him “Judas” and chanting “you’re not special anymore”.

Mourinho responded to the jibes by holding up three fingers to the crowd to remind them how many Premier League titles he won in his two spells with Chelsea.

And, determined to have the last word, Mourinho, sacked by the Blues last season, took the opportunity to remind Conte and Chelsea’s supporters that they have a long way to go to match his achievements at the Bridge.

“They can call me what they want. I’m a professional,” he said.

“I feel responsibilities on Chelsea’s bad Premier League last season, but when I left we were in the Champions League, winning the Champions League group.

“Now they don’t play in Europe. It’s not my fault.

“Until the moment they have a manager that wins four Premier Leagues, I am number one.

“If a manager wins four I become number two. Until then, Judas is number one.”

Although Conte and Mourinho didn’t shake hands at full-time, the Italian insisted he had done nothing wrong in their touchline clash.

“It was hard work for the fourth official but I controlled my emotion very well today,” Conte said.

“It’s normal for the manager to push his players. What happens outside the pitch is just a circus.”

Conte saluted Hazard for refusing to be intimidated by United’s bullying as N’Golo Kante’s superb second-half winner gave the Premier League leaders a Wembley semi-final showdown with London rivals Tottenham next month.

“For sure, he showed strong character. After the first 25 minutes, every player would have a fear of being kicked. It’s very dangerous to receive a kick from the back,” he said.

Inevitably, Mourinho refused to accept blame for his team’s approach and turned the focus on referee Michael Oliver’s decision to send off Herrera for what was one of the less vicious tackles on Hazard.

“Herrera’s second yellow card, compare that with (Marcus) Rashford going to attack the ball in a counter-attacking situation. He was fouled and the referee doesn’t give a booking,” Mourinho said.

“We all saw the game. We can all agree there was one match until Herrera saw the red card and another after that.

“I thought we were going to win because everything was under control, then with 10 men it was very difficult for us.”

Manchester City cruise into FA Cup semi-finals

March 11, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Manchester City cruised into the FA Cup semi-finals with a 2-0 victory at Middlesbrough on Saturday as Pep Guardiola showed he is taking the competition seriously.

FA Cup

Goals from David Silva and Sergio Aguero were scant reward for City as they easily out-classed Middlesbrough, who must have feared such an outcome when they witnessed the team named by Guardiola.

Ominously for Middlesbrough, languishing in the relegation zone after failing to win any of their last 10 Premier League games, all City’s world-class players were involved, despite the fact they face Monaco in a decisive Champions League last 16 second leg on Wednesday.

“We’re so happy to be through because to reach the semi-finals of this competition is so complicated,” Guardiola said.

“We produced a good performance today. We were there from the first minute. The first goal was important but it was down to how we approached the game.

“Now we recover good to play another big game on Wednesday.”

City’s extra class soon surfaced as three of Guardiola’s big guns combined to open the scoring in the third minute.

Yaya Toure’s angled pass was headed back across goal by Pablo Zabaleta and any one of three players could have put the ball beyond the goalkeeper Brad Guzan, with Silva applying the finishing touch.

It was a goal destined to further erode the fragile confidence of a Middlesbrough team that struggled to find an immediate response apart from two dreadful tackles, one that earned a caution for Antonio Barragan and another that should have brought the same punishment for Grant Leadbitter.

Leadbitter, whose inevitable booking eventually came at the end of the half, was employed more impressively when Middlesbrough finally troubled City midway through the half.

The midfielder’s corner was met by Rudy Gestede, whose header was parried by goalkeeper Claudio Bravo before Zabaleta completed the clearance on the line.

Another header from Gestede drifted over the bar a minute later in his final contribution before an injury forced him off to be replaced by the former City forward Alvaro Negredo.

Negredo spent the rest of the opening half watching from a distance as his current team came under constant pressure, notably from Leroy Sane, who failed to take advantage of a cross from Raheem Sterling before almost creating a goal at the end of an electrifying run.

Middlesbrough did threaten again when Cristhian Stuani directed a 37th minute header too close to Bravo, but City remained firmly in control of the tie and Toure almost extended their lead with a header shortly before the interval.

Remarkably, the opening stages of the second-half almost brought a replica of City’s goal.

This time, Kevin de Bruyne redirected identical Toure’s pass across the goal where Silva was waiting again, but this time he wastefully drove his shot over the bar.

City appeared in the mood to finish off Middlesbrough as Guzan was forced to make four fine saves in the space of 10 minutes, twice from Sane and also from Silva and Aguero, who finally found a way past the keeper in the 67th minute when he turned in Sane’s excellent cross for the second goal.

The remaining quarter of the match was all about Guzan as he saved superbly from Silva and Aguero, while Sterling had a goal disallowed for offside.

When Middlesbrough did create a rare chance for Fabio, it was cleared off the line by John Stones.

Barca complete incredible comeback to sink PSG

March 9, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Barcelona became the first team in Champions League history to overturn a four-goal deficit in a knockout tie as a stoppage-time goal by Sergio Roberto completed an extraordinary 6-1 victory over Paris St Germain on Wednesday.

Barcelona's Sergi Roberto celebrates scoring their sixth goal with team mates and fans

Edinson Cavani looked to have wrecked Barcelona’s dreams by volleying in an away goal to make the score 3-1 but two late strikes from Neymar set up a thrilling finale before Roberto scored to seal a 6-5 aggregate win for the Spanish side.

Barcelona began to believe in the impossible dream of clawing back their shock 4-0 loss from the first leg when Luis Suarez headed over the line in the third minute and a Layvin Kurzawa own goal gave them further hope before the break.

Lionel Messi’s penalty five minutes into the second period had the Nou Camp on its feet but Cavani’s strike in the 62nd was a sucker punch to Barca’s ambitions from which Luis Enrique’s side took a while to recover.

A curled free kick from Neymar in the 88th minute gave them hope and the Brazilian converted a penalty before substitute Roberto slid in to knock the ball beyond Kevin Trapp from a chipped free kick and send Barca through to the last eight.

An electric atmosphere gripped the Nou Camp before kick-off after Suarez and Luis Enrique had said they truly believed a comeback was on and the players caught the wave of optimism by swarming all over PSG from the first whistle.

Trapp struggled to cope with the early pressure and flapped at a high ball, allowing Suarez to jump ahead of him and force the ball over the line.

PSG had a penalty appeal turned down when Julian Draxler’s low cross struck Javier Mascherano’s arm but it was one of few forays forward from PSG in the first half as Barca did all the attacking.

The Catalans owed their second to another piece of slack defending, however, as Iniesta nudged his way past Marquinhos in the area to knock the ball back into the danger zone and it bounced off the swinging leg of Kurzawa and into the far corner.

PSG riled Barca supporters by coming back on to the pitch after the break a few minutes late but the Nou Camp was soon celebrating a third as Messi powered a penalty past Trapp after Neymar had been tripped by Thomas Meunier.

Cavani hit the post but made amends by smashing a loose ball home, although he should have added another but was denied by the feet of Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

At the time it did not look to be a crucial miss but Barca had other ideas, scoring three times in six minutes to complete an incredible comeback.

Arsenal must stop ‘fighting each other’ – Walcott

March 8, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Arsenal forward Theo Walcott has acknowledged the disharmony within the club’s ranks by declaring it is time for Arsene Wenger’s players to stop “fighting each other”.

Wenger

Reports emerged last week that star player Alexis Sanchez had become involved in a blazing training-ground row with some of his team-mates.

Wenger said the reports were “completely false”, but speaking after Arsenal’s humiliating Champions League exit against Bayern Munich, Walcott admitted all was not well within the camp.

“There are certain things that happen at training grounds,” Walcott said, in comments published by the London Evening Standard newspaper on Wednesday.

“I’m sure it happens at every other training ground, most of the time, really. You don’t see it often at Arsenal.

“Things have happened. They need to stay in the dressing room and the players and staff need to sort it out. We are in it together here. We can’t be fighting each other.”

Sanchez came in for criticism on social media after television pictures appeared to show him laughing following his substitution during Arsenal’s 5-1 home defeat by Bayern on Tuesday.

The result completed a 10-2 aggregate defeat that saw Wenger’s side eliminated from the competition in the round of 16 for the seventh season in a row.

Wenger, Arsenal’s manager since September 1996, is out of contract at the end of the season and is due to make an announcement about his future either this month or next.

Some fans have called for him to step down, but Walcott said the players had to take responsibility for the club’s predicament as well.

“He (Wenger) will take this on himself, but us players need to look at ourselves,” said the England forward, who put Arsenal 1-0 up in Tuesday’s second leg.

“The manager has been taking a lot of flak in recent weeks and us players have been accepting it, but we can’t.

“We need to take the pressure off the manager and that will happen by performances. Who knows what the manager will do? Players just want to play football for this club and do well for the manager.”

Barcelona seek miracle as Bayern, Real eye Champions League quarters

March 6, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Barcelona striker Neymar vowed his side will throw everything at Paris Saint-Germain in their bid to overturn a four-goal deficit in the Champions League last 16 this week.

Barcelona

PSG fired a significant warning of intent throughout Europe with a 4-0 rout of Barca in the French capital three weeks ago and will aim to complete the job in the return leg at the Camp Nou on Wednesday.

But the Catalan giants go into the game buoyed by thumping 6-1 and 5-0 wins in their past two league matches and haven’t given up hope of staging an unprecedented comeback.

No side has lost 4-0 away from home in Europe and gone through in a two-legged tie, but with Barca’s prolific front three of Neymar, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez they cannot be entirely discounted.

“Against PSG we will run and fight and then we will see what happens,” said Neymar.

“It’s really important that our spirit is on the way up and our confidence too. I see us on the up and with confidence. On Wednesday we are going to play really well.”

Barca knocked PSG out at the quarter-final stage in both 2012-13 and 2014-15, but the reigning French champions have the upper hand this time and January signing Julian Draxler is confident of reaching the last eight for the fifth year in succession.

“Many teams have lost 5-0 at the Camp Nou, we know that anything is possible,” Draxler told PSG’s club website. “But deep down I’m convinced we’ll qualify for the quarter-finals.

“I think it will be important to attack and not just think about defending.”

Bayern Munich have one foot in the next round after thrashing Arsenal 5-1 at the Allianz Arena and look set to eliminate the Gunners in the last 16 for the third time in the past five seasons.

“We have a big advantage, but Arsenal are dangerous, so we have to go full throttle to win,” said Spain international Javi Martinez, who netted his first goal of the season in Saturday’s 3-0 victory at Cologne.

Philipp Lahm will miss the game through suspension, but the Bayern skipper said his team-mates would aim to extinguish any lingering hopes Arsene Wenger’s men have right from kick-off in London.

“We have to be highly focused and, most importantly, show Arsenal in the first quarter-hour they can forget the next round,” Lahm said ahead of Tuesday’s clash, with the Premier League side staring at a seventh straight last-16 exit.

Holders Real Madrid head to Napoli as clear favourites after a 3-1 win in the Spanish capital, but such an advantage has not always proved a guarantee of success for the record 11-time champions.

Real have held a similar lead on eight previous occasions in European competition but only progressed half of the time, providing Napoli with reason to dream they can pull off a shock.

“We believe in it. We know we can score two goals at the San Paolo. We also know it will be quite a job for our defenders,” Senegalese centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly told AFP following Saturday’s 2-1 win at Roma in Serie A.

Borussia Dortmund trail 1-0 ahead of the visit of Benfica to Signal Iduna Park on Wednesday.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang missed a penalty as Kostas Mitroglou’s second-half strike in Lisbon last month gave the Portuguese outfit the edge in their tie.

But the Gabonese striker netted his 20th and 21st goals of the Bundesliga season in Saturday’s 6-2 drubbing of Bayer Leverkusen to move back in front of Bayern marksman Robert Lewandowski at the top of the scoring charts.

However, the victory came at a cost with Germany international Marco Reus ruled out for four weeks after tearing his hamstring.

“It’s sad news, he (Reus) has been playing very consistently for weeks and at a high level,” said Dortmund boss Thomas Tuchel.

“It’s an enormous loss which tarnishes the win.”

Reina out to stop old Premier League foe Ronaldo

March 6, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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If Napoli goalkeeper Pepe Reina reproduces the kind of form that was key to Saturday’s 2-1 win over Roma against Real Madrid in midweek, a Champions League upset could be on the cards.

Raina

But the former Barcelona and Liverpool shot-stopper would be forgiven for also hoping Cristiano Ronaldo forgets his shooting boots Tuesday when Napoli bid to overturn a 3-1 first leg, last 16 defeat against the 11-time European champions.

At the Santiago Bernabeu last month, Reina and Ronaldo were meeting for the first time since the 2008-2009 season, when they both played Premier League football.

In England, they met a total of six times and, with three victories, a draw and two defeats while playing for Manchester United, Portugal’s four-time Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldo comes out on top.

Ahead of Tuesday’s clash at what Reina hopes will be a “red-hot” San Paolo, the odds, and statistics, are firmly stacked against Maurizio Sarri’s hosts.

If Napoli are to go through on away goals, they will have to do what no team has managed since Wolfsburg beat Madrid in the quarter-finals nearly a year and 46 games ago — keep a clean sheet against Los Blancos.

As Napoli look to reach the quarter-finals for the first time, Madrid are poised to reach their seventh in succession.

Yet even defeat last time out, Reina was defiant in their chances, saying post-match: “We have to believe in the comeback, because we can beat Madrid 2-0 at home.

“A goal away from home is very important. We have nothing to lose. Real were and are the favourites, but they can expect a red hot reception at the San Paolo.”

If Reina’s performances for a slick Napoli side currently being inspired by the goalscoring exploits of Dries Mertens are anything to go by this season, he could provide the much-needed X factor.

Reina was superb in a thrilling 2-1 win over Roma on Saturday that saw him deny Diego Perotti at the death with an acrobatic, one-handed save he pushed onto the crossbar before sweeping the ball away away with his leg.

It was an inspired stop that secured the win for Napoli and reduced the gap on second-placed Roma to two points, but Roma, who are already eliminated, are not Real Madrid.

Quantifying past meetings between Reina and Ronaldo is a difficult task: although United came out on top, Ronaldo has now only beaten Reina twice in seven encounters, once from the spot.

It took until his fifth match against Reina, during the 2007-008 season, for Ronaldo to beat the Spaniard, hitting United’s second in the 79th minute of a comprehensive 3-0 win at Old Trafford.

The second, and last time Ronaldo beat Reina was from the penalty spot in the 23rd minute of a 4-1 league defeat late in the 2008-2009 campaign.

Although both Ronaldo and Bale sat out Real’s 4-1 win at Eibar at the weekend due to injury, the Portuguese star is expected to be fully fit on Tuesday when Madrid will look to extend their impressive form in Europe.

Zinedine Zidane, who is expected to make five changes in all with Marcelo, Dani Carvajal and Toni Kroos joining Bale and Ronaldo, insisted Ronaldo’s injury “isn’t serious”.

Ronaldo may not have been on target when Karim Benzema, Toni Kroos and Casemiro all beat Reina last time out.

But Reina’s familiarity with the Portuguese star will be welcome. Even when he didn’t play against Ronaldo, he offered advice to others on how to stop his “spear-like” shots in dead ball situations.

“You have to be careful, and watch them all the way because you don’t know until the last moment where the ball is going to go,” Reina advised then Barcelona ‘keeper Victor Valdes prior to the Champions League final against United in 2009.

“Ronaldo’s free-kicks are like a spear.”

Ronaldo didn’t score on that occasion, when Barcelona triumphed 2-0 in Rome.

Mourinho laments United’s lack of cutting edge

March 5, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Jose Mourinho fears Manchester United’s bid to qualify for the Champions League will fail because of their inability to kill off inferior opponents at Old Trafford.

Rojo

United had most of the possession and chances against struggling Bournemouth on Saturday, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s penalty miss forced them to settle for a 1-1 draw.

Mourinho’s side have dropped home points against a number of sides below them in the table this season, with Stoke, Burnley and Hull all picking up draws when second best.

The United manager believes if his team had been more ruthless, they could even be challenging Chelsea for the title, but instead they are three points adrift of the top four.

“I don’t speak about the Manchester City match at home that we lost, because everybody knows what happens, the penalty (we should have had) and the red card (that should have been shown) to (goalkeeper Claudio) Bravo,” Mourinho said.

“But if you look at the points we lost at home, all the other matches we drew. If you accumulate those points, you are talking another 10 or 12.

“Then you are not just talking about top four, but top two or maybe even top one. There are matches to play, points to win and points to lose, but the reality is that we are losing too many points at home.”

The match was dominated by three flash-points just before half-time, first when Tyrone Mings escaped punishment for stamping on Ibrahimovic’s head, then when the United striker elbowed the Bournemouth defender in the face.

Referee Kevin Friend did not penalise either player, but did then send off Bournemouth captain Andrew Surman for a second bookable offence as he pushed over Ibrahimovic in the aftermath of the elbow incident.

Friend than also sent Bournemouth assistant manager Jason Tindall to the stand for making his protests too forcefully at half-time.

That all came after Josh King’s penalty had cancelled out Marcos Rojo’s first league goal for United, and before Ibrahimovic’s second-half spot-kick was saved by Artur Boruc.

Mourinho refused to criticise Friend or Mings, saying: “Zlatan is a big man, who has had too many years in football, like me. We are not the generation who goes to the media and complains.

“We are from that generation of street football and football for big guys. What happens, happens.”

Asked about the confrontation between Ibrahimovic and Mings, Mourinho said: “I don’t comment. I comment on the football, I comment on the game, I comment on the big decisions of the game.

“I think Kevin Friend was very good, the penalty against Phil Jones was a clear penalty, the penalty against Adam Smith was a clear penalty so the two big decisions of the game were good.

“The assistant referees were also good so for me good performance by the referee.”

Tindall took on post-match media duties because Eddie Howe was suffering with illness, although the Bournemouth manager was well enough to stand on the touchline during the game.

“Unfortunately I have not had the opportunity to see any of the decisions back again,” Tindall said.

“The only thing I did see was the first yellow card for Surman, which I did think was very harsh.

“My players felt it was an elbow by Ibrahimovic. I am sure there was some kind of communication with the officials which ended up with Andrew being sent off.

“I got sent to the stands. I let my frustrations get the better of me at half-time but that was for the reason of Surman getting his first yellow card, which I thought was harsh.”

Arsenal ‘owe themselves a performance’, says Wenger

March 3, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Arsene Wenger has told his Arsenal side they “owe themselves” a good performance as they look to revive their faltering Premier League campaign away to Liverpool on Saturday.

Arsenal

The Gunners, who last won the English title in 2004, have yet again seen their bid for Premier League glory falter after an encouraging start that included a 19-game run where they were undefeated in all competitions.

With Wenger’s future uncertain — it’s still to be decided if he will stay with the north London club when his current contract expires at the end of the season — Arsenal face a tough fight to finish in the top four, something they’ve managed in every one of the French manager’s full seasons at the club.

Wenger, 67, has come under renewed pressure from what some Arsenal fans see as the stagnation of recent seasons for all the success the club has enjoyed since he took charge in September 1996.

His cause has not been helped by recent results, with a surprise defeat by Watford preceding a 3-1 loss at leaders Chelsea and a humiliating 5-1 reverse in a Champions League tie away to Bayern Munich.

Arsenal are now 13 points off top spot in the Premier League and on the brink of a seventh straight last 16 exit in the Champions League.

No wonder Wenger said of his team ahead of Saturday’s match at Anfield: “They owe themselves a performance.

“They are quality players and I think on the day (at Bayern) it all went against us because we were 1-1 at half-time and in the second half everything went against us.

“We lost Laurent Koscielny quickly and then quickly conceded without having adjusted, we lost three goals – (in minutes) 53, 56 and 63. After that it was mentally very difficult.

“We responded at Sutton (a 2-0 FA Cup win), that was quite a tricky game and we want to respond again tomorrow. We have an opportunity against Bayern after that to show we can cause them problems.”

Arsenal have a desperate away record against the other members of the current top six in the Premier League, with Wenger having overseen just three wins in the Gunners’ last 26 games at Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United.

Wenger is well aware that victory at Anfield, where Liverpool will kick off just a point behind Arsenal, would be especially beneficial to his team.

“It is even more important because we have not done well recently in these kind of games,” he said.

“For us, this kind of game like Liverpool is of course an opportunity that we want to take. We have to go and take it and not wait for the result.

“The result comes with an attacking attitude and that for me is the most important. That we go to just start on a positive attitude – for the rest of the season, of course it will have vital consequences.”

Arsenal have a game in hand over Chelsea but Wenger said: “We have to focus on our next game

“We have a game in hand, things can change quickly. To do a thing like that, you need exceptional rhythm in your results and as well Chelsea to fade.

“At the moment I think it’s more important that we focus on winning our games and focus on our next game rather than dreaming about coming back to Chelsea.”

Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny and Aaron Ramsey are now both fit, while Danny Welbeck has recovered from a second significant knee injury.

Aguero ends drought in City cup romp

March 2, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Sergio Aguero scored twice, ending a run of six domestic games without a goal, as Manchester City advanced to the FA Cup quarter-finals with an emphatic 5-1 victory over Championship side Huddersfield.

MAnchester City

Leroy Sane, Pablo Zabaleta and Kelechi Iheanacho also scored for Pep Guardiola’s side who booked a place in the last eight of the competition, where they will travel to take on Premier League rivals Middlesbrough.

However, City were forced to respond to an early scare after the visitors, who made nine changes with an eye on their efforts to win promotion to the Premier League, took the lead through Harry Bunn.

City finally gained a foothold with Sane’s equaliser on the half hour, took the lead four minutes later from Aguero’s penalty and made it three goals in eight minutes via Zabaleta.

Despite making nine changes from their last league performance, Huddersfield took a surprise lead with just seven minutes gone after year another disastrous example of City’s defending and goalkeeping.

Philip Billing was allowed to make a long run deep into the home half before his pass was touched by Collin Quaner into the path of Bunn whose drive went through the legs of recalled keeper Claudio Bravo.

City had already struck the post, after Sane cut in from the left and struck a thunderous effort against the right-hand upright.

And after falling behind, the only surprise was that it took until the 30th minute for the Premier League side to equalise.

Joel Coleman gathered Kevin De Bruyne’s powerful free-kick at the second attempt and City felt they should have had a penalty when Jon Stankovic appeared to handle a De Bruyne effort soon after.

There was yet another penalty appeal, again for a Stankovic hand, after Raheem Sterling’s cross struck the defender.

But, on the half hour, the appeals did not matter after De Bruyne’s cross found Sterling on the right and the England forward’s low centre handed Sane the simple task of tapping the ball over the line from point-blank range.

Four minutes later, City finally received the penalty decision they wanted when Zabaleta chipped the ball into the area, Stankovic wrestled Nicolas Otamendi to the ground and Aguero nonchalantly stroked in his 21st goal of the season from the spot.

Aguero hit the post three minutes later having been played clean through on goal but it took only until the 38th minute for the replay to be all but settled.

Aguero’s near-post shot was well parried by goalkeeper Coleman but the Argentinian had the presence of mind to react and centre for Zabaleta to finish easily.

There were still problems at the back for City and Bravo made an unconvincing stop to deny Jack Payne’s shot before the interval at the expense of a corner, leading to sarcastic applause from the home support.

Huddersfield manager David Wagner, watching from the stands as he served the first of a two-match FA ban, clearly had more interest in his team’s Championship meeting with leaders Newcastle on Saturday.

And the tie could have turned even uglier for him soon after the restart when Aguero launched a devastating counter-attack the length of the field and played through Sane whose first touch for once let him down.

Huddersfield responded with Quaner robbing the ball from De Bruyne just inside the City half and advancing before having a shot deflected behind, Joe Lolley headed over from a well-worked short corner and Quaner appealed for a penalty after a challenge from John Stones.

But City were coasting towards the finishing line and always looked capable of adding to their tally, something they did through Aguero in the 73rd minute after Zabaleta sent Sterling sprinting down the right.

The forward’s cross was met by Aguero, six yards out, whose lethal, first-time finish gave Coleman no chance in the Huddersfield goal.

Substitute Iheanacho wrapped up the scoring in injury-time with a similar goal as Zabaleta’s pass to Jesus Navas was crossed for the Nigerian to score from six yards.

Red card unfair, claims repentant Bale

March 2, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Gareth Bale complained he had been harshly treated after the first red card of his Real Madrid career cost the European champions in a thrilling 3-3 draw at home to Las Palmas on Wednesday.

Bale

Bale kicked out at Jonathan Viera twice before finally pushing the Las Palmas midfielder to the ground early in the second-half with the scores level at 1-1.

“I don’t believe that it was deserving of a red card,” the Welshman told Real Madrid TV.

“I was shown the yellow for the foul, I was then pushed and I just pushed him back.

“I want to apologise to the team and the fans. I hope to learn from my mistake”.

Madrid looked set for a first home league defeat in a year as Las Palmas took advantage of Bale’s dismissal to lead 3-1 with just three minutes remaining through Viera and Kevin-Prince Boateng.

However, Cristiano Ronaldo’s double salvaged a draw that keeps Real just a point adrift of league leaders Barcelona with a game in hand.

“We can’t look for excuses,” said Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane.

“What we can do is improve our performance. We are not happy with how we are playing.

“There are moments in the season like this. The past three or four games things haven’t gone as we would want, but we are not going to look for excuses in the referees.”

Madrid vice-captain Marcelo said Bale is aware his moment of madness had badly let his teammates down.

“I am not one to give him a clip round the ear, that is what I do to my children,” said the Brazilian.

“Bale is old enough to know if he has made a mistake or not.

“These things happen in football, but hopefully it doesn’t happen again between now and the end of the season.”

In a recurring theme of Madrid’s season, a stunning late effort undid a lot of the damage caused by a below-par display.

The European champions trailed Villarreal 2-0 on Sunday before a rousing fightback in the final 25 minutes sealed a 3-2 win.

However, having also lost 2-1 at Valencia last week after conceding twice in the first 10 minutes, Zidane insisted Los Blancos can’t always leave themselves with a mountain to climb.

“We can’t go over the top. There are things we have done well this year, but we have to analyse it and we will change things,” added the Frenchman.

“We have shown we have character and we can do more. We have to improve particularly in our first-half performances.

“We have to think about the positives. We will analyse the negatives, but to come back from 1-3 to 3-3 is a huge effort.”

On the same night that Barcelona coach Luis Enrique announced he will not continue next season, the Catalans have the fate of the title in their own hands for the first time in months.

A 6-1 thrashing of Sporting Gijon earlier on Wednesday saw Barca leapfrog Madrid into top spot and the two sides are still to meet at Real’s Santiago Bernabeu in April.

However, Zidane rejected suggestions Madrid are in danger of throwing the title away.

“We are going to fight. When there were good moments and we were leaders, I always said we would have difficult moments.

“We are not leaders, but the league is still open and we are not going to give up.

“You win leagues at the end (of the season) not now.”

Real Madrid stage Villarreal fightback, Messi nets winner for Barcelona

February 27, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo hauled Real Madrid back from 2-0 down to win 3-2 at Villarreal on Sunday and regain top spot in La Liga from Barcelona.

Real MAdrid

Earlier, Barca had momentarily usurped Real thanks to Lionel Messi’s winner four minutes from time in a 2-1 victory at Atletico Madrid.

Real lead Barca by a point, but also have a game in hand on their title rivals.

“We showed character to turn the game around,” said Real boss Zinedine Zidane.

“With everything that happened today it was vitally important to get the three points.”

Bale was recalled to the starting line-up for the first time in three months after a long-term injury layoff and Real’s shock 2-1 defeat to Valencia in midweek.

And the European champions looked set for a second straight defeat as Villarreal struck twice early in the second half.

Firstly, Manu Trigueros volleyed home Samu Castillejo’s knockdown before Cedric Bakambu burst onto Bruno Soriano’s through ball to slot past Keylor Navas.

Ronaldo almost replied immediately, but Madrid’s luck looked out when his sweetly struck volley came back off the post.

However, Bale started Madrid’s fightback as he rose highest to power home Dani Carvajal’s cross 25 minutes from time.

Villarreal had enjoyed the better of the opening hour, but were swamped by wave upon wave of Real attack for the final 30 minutes.

The visitors needed a slice of luck, though, when Soriano was harshly adjudged to have handled inside his own area 15 minutes from time.

Ronaldo took responsiblity from the spot to smash home the equaliser.

Villarreal had lost goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo midway through the first half to what looks like the fourth cruciate knee ligament injury of his career.

“Asenjo seems to have torn his ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) in his left knee. It’s a real shame,” said Villarreal coach Fran Escriba.

And his absence was to prove crucial for Real’s winner seven minutes from time as substitute goalkeeper Andres Fernandez let Alvaro Morata’s powerful header from Marcelo’s cross squeeze under his body to complete a rousing Real fightback.

Under-fire Barcelona coach Luis Enrique thanked the “terrible” state of Atletico’s pitch for Messi’s winner at the Vicente Calderon.

Messi stabbed home at the second attempt after his first effort was blocked to register his 27th career goal against Atletico.

“It was a terrible pitch for passing the ball, but I think it favoured us for both the goals,” said Enrique.

Rafinha’s scrappy effort fired Barca into the lead just after the hour, but Atletico responded seven minutes later through Diego Godin.

Defeat leaves fourth-placed Atletico just one point clear of Real Sociedad in the battle for the final Champions League slot.

“We competed very well, but they showed their class in both areas,” said Atletico coach Diego Simeone.

Following their Champions League thrashing at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain and struggles at home to Leganes last weekend, Enrique switched from the Catalans’ habitual 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3 with Messi forced into an advanced midfield role.

The change in tactics did little to stem Barca’s slump in form early on as Atletico dominated the opening half hour.

Atletico’s best effort of the opening half came from long range, though, as Antoine Griezmann’s driven effort on his weaker right foot forced a brilliant flying save from Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

Luis Suarez screwed horribly wide after being played in by Messi at the start of the second-half.

Then at the other end, ter Stegen made another excellent stop to deny Griezmann from a narrow angle.

The deadlock was eventually broken in scrappy fashion on 63 minutes as Rafinha profited from a loose ball inside the area to fire low into the far corner.

However, the lead lasted only seven minutes as Godin rose higher than a host of Barca defenders to flick home Koke’s free-kick for the equaliser.

Yet, when Barca needed a potential season-defining goal, Messi again came up trumps with his 35th in as many games this season.

The five-time World Player of the Year’s first effort from Suarez’s cut-back was blocked, but he followed up to prod past the helpless Jan Oblak and move Barca top of the table for a few hours.

Ibrahimovic double downs Saints in Wembley thriller

February 27, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic sealed the first major silverware of Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United reign and broke Southampton’s hearts as the Swedish star’s late goal clinched a dramatic 3-2 victory in Sunday’s League Cup final.

MAnchester United

Ibrahimovic was one of Mourinho’s marquee signings in the close-season and he repaid his manager’s faith with a typically dominant display on the big occasion at Wembley.

The 35-year-old opened the scoring with a blistering free-kick before Jesse Lingard doubled United’s lead.

Manolo Gabbiadini sparked a thrilling Southampton fightback, scoring just before half-time and again early in the second half.

But Ibrahimovic had the last word as his 87th minute header — his 26th goal of the campaign — ensured Mourinho joined United legend Alex Ferguson and Nottingham Forest great Brian Clough as the only managers to win the League Cup four times.

Mourinho is the first United manager to win a top prize in his maiden season at Old Trafford, a feat not even Ferguson or Matt Busby achieved.

It was also the 54-year-old’s 19th major trophy of his glittering career.

With United trailing well behind Premier League leaders Chelsea, Mourinho needed this success to guarantee players, fans and the club’s hierarchy remain in his corner.

But the serial winner will hope the victory acts as a catalyst to claim bigger prizes in the near future, just as it did when the League Cup was the first silverware of his maiden spell with Chelsea.

“Ibrahimovic won the game for us because he was outstanding,” Mourinho said.

“Our opponents were better than us for long periods of the game and didn’t deserve to lose over 90 minutes.

“Ibrahimovic made the difference. He gave us a cup.”

In the absence of injured playmaker Henrikh Mkhitaryan and with Wayne Rooney again on the bench, the stage was set for Ibrahimovic to cement his status as United’s talisman and he wasted little time stamping his authority on his first showpiece occasion in England.

Demanding the ball right from the start, Ibrahimovic’s astute pass set up France midfielder Paul Pogba for a fierce long-range effort that stung the palms of Saints goalkeeper Fraser Forster.

Southampton responded with a dangerous raid that should have brought the opening goal in the 11th minute when Cedric Soares crossed low into the six yard box and Gabbiadini side-footed past David de Gea., only to see his celebrations curtailed by a dubious offside decision.

Emboldened by that lucky escape, United swept forward and in the 19th minute Oriol Romeu made a costly error when he try to halt another attack with a crude lunge on Ander Herrera.

Romeu was booked but there was worse punishment to come from the free-kick as Ibrahimovic stepped up to smash his dipping shot over the Southampton wall.

Despite their lead, United still looked alarmingly casual and De Gea was forced to save from James Ward-Prowse and Dusan Tadic.

But Southampton were even more negligent at the back and Mourinho’s men made them pay again in the 38th minute.

Marcos Rojo was given room to pick out Lingard inside the penalty area and the United forward couldn’t believe this luck as the statuesque Saints’ defence allowed him to guide a low finish past Forster.

Yet on the stroke of half-time Southampton were back in it as United were caught napping by Ward-Prowse’s cross and Gabbiadini applied the finishing touch with a cool close-range effort.

With the strangely diffident Pogba offering little protection to United’s defence, Southampton exposed United’s defensive flaws again to draw level in the 48th minute

When a corner was directed back into the United area, Pogba missed a header and Gabbiadini reacted quicker than Chris Smalling to whip his shot past De Gea for his fifth goal in just three appearances since a January move from Napoli.

Romeu almost won it when he headed against a post from Ward-Prowse’s corner.

But, despite a far from convincing display from United, it was Ibrahimovic who delivered the knockout blow with extra-time looming.

He started and finished a United counter, ghosting into the six-yard box to meet Herrera’s cross with a bullet header that added more lustre to both United and Mourinho’s trophy cabinets.

Ranieri pays the price as Leicester fairytale turns sour

February 24, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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The anguished tone in Kasper Schmeichel’s voice told the story of the turmoil gripping Leicester as the Premier League champions slumped into a relegation crisis that triggered Claudio Ranieri’s brutal sacking on Thursday.

Renieri

“We’re the reigning champions and quite frankly it’s been terrible. It’s been embarrassing,” the Leicester goalkeeper told a television reporter after a dismal 3-0 defeat at home to Manchester United on February 5.

“It’s time for every single one of us, right from the top to the bottom of this club, to stand up and be counted because if we don’t, we’re going to end up getting relegated.”

A year on from a stunning 3-1 win at Manchester City that sent them five points clear at the league summit, the loss to United left Ranieri’s men a solitary point above the relegation zone.

Leicester’s Thai owners felt compelled to issue a vote of confidence in Ranieri, but the team remained in dire trouble after an even more damaging 2-0 defeat at fellow strugglers Swansea days later and the beleaguered Italian was about to pay the price.

Reports emerged that Ranieri was unable to quell squad unrest over his tactics and selection decisions, with the former Chelsea boss forced to deny claims his players were unhappy he had banned chicken burgers from the training ground canteen.

A 1-0 loss at third tier Millwall in the FA Cup fifth round on Saturday, in which his lethargic side were out-fought by 10 men for much of the second half, was another huge blow to Ranieri’s credibility.

His team had lost their past five league matches and were the only side in the top four English divisions without a league goal in 2017.

The final straw came in Sevilla, where Leicester were beaten 2-1 in a Champions League last 16 first leg clash that the Spanish side could easily have won by a far greater margin.

Ranieri had only signed a new contract in August, but by the time Leicester arrived home, he was a dead man walking.

Only 292 days after Leicester’s title triumph climaxed with the trophy presentation amid fireworks and a fanfare from opera singer Andrea Bocelli, Ranieri discovered his time was up.

It was a stunningly abrupt end to Ranieri’s reign and many had sympathy for the genial coach’s demise.

“After all that Claudio Ranieri has done for Leicester City, to sack him now is inexplicable, unforgivable and gut-wrenchingly sad,” Leicester legend Gary Lineker said.

But money talks loudest in the Premier League and the risk of losing over £150 million in television and commercial revenue if Leicester were relegated was too much for vice chairman Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha to stomach with only 13 games remaining.

Leicester’s woes were embodied by the woeful form of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, the rough-cut attacking stars whose goals and assists catapulted the Foxes to the title.

N’Golo Kante, Leicester’s other stand-out player last season, was the only departure during the close season and the club have failed to plug the hole created by his move to current leaders Chelsea.

Injury has hampered Nampalys Mendy since he signed from Nice and with Daniel Amartey an unconvincing stop-gap, Leicester splashed out £15 million ($18.7 million, 17.4 million euros) to sign Wilfred Ndidi last month.

Leicester lost head of recruitment Steve Walsh to Everton after last season’s triumph and their transfer activity since has been patchy.

Ahmed Musa has not convinced, Mendy has barely played, Ron-Robert Zieler has looked a less than capable deputy for Schmeichel and Luis Hernandez lasted just half a season before being sold to Malaga.

Ranieri stuck with a tried and tested 4-4-2 system throughout last season, but the Italian’s attempts to broaden his players’ horizons this term produced some confused performances.

Just nine months after the dizzy climax to their 5,000-1 title triumph, Leicester now face the prospect of becoming England’s first defending champions to be relegated since Manchester City in 1938.

Former Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini and ex-Chelsea boss Avram Grant are reportedly among the contenders to replace Ranieri.

Survival will be the new man’s only mission this season, but whoever comes in has little time to stop Leicester’s rags to riches rise coming to a depressing conclusion.

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