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La Liga win is bigger than World Cup for Zidane

May 25, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Zinedine Zidane claimed winning La Liga as Real Madrid coach on Sunday surpasses his stellar achievements as a player and even lifting the Champions League in his debut season as coach last year.

Real Madrid

Madrid claimed the Spanish title for a 33rd time as Cristiano Ronaldo struck his 40th goal of the season and Karim Benzema slotted home early in the second-half to secure a 2-0 win at Malaga.

“It is the happiest day of my professional life by a distance,” Zidane said after landing Madrid’s first title in five years.

“Right now I would like to stand up here and dance,” he added in a press conference interrupted by Marcelo, Danilo, Casemiro, Lucas Vazquez and Alvaro Morata drowning their boss in champagne.

Zidane won the World Cup, European Championships and Champions League as one of the greatest players of his generation, but said the extra responsibility that comes with being coach made his achievements all the greater.

“As coach of Real Madrid you know what the expectations are,” he added.

“I have experienced it as a player and that is why I say it is the happiest day of my professional life because being a coach changes everything.

“I have won everything with this club, this shirt but to win La Liga is the best of all.

“I live what I am doing with passion and what I have enjoyed the most is today because after nine or 10 months we have won La Liga.”

Zidane’s role in restoring Madrid to the top of Spanish football was hailed by Ronaldo as the Portuguese claimed just his second league winners’ medal in eight seasons since joining the Spanish giants.

“He has managed things very intelligently along with his assistants,” said Ronaldo.

“The proof is there, we have won a very difficult league against one of the best teams in the world in Barca and for me Zidane has done a phenomenal job.”

Madrid could go onto complete a first La Liga and Champions League double for 59 years when they face Juventus in the Champions League final on June 3.

And Real’s run to the title was most certainly a squad effort with Ronaldo sidelined or rested for nine games — all of which they won.

“On a collective level I think it is my best season at Real Madrid,” added Ronaldo.

“Everyone has played minutes and all the squad have contributed.”

Madrid edged out reigning champions Barcelona by just three points after the Catalans came from 2-0 down to beat Eibar 4-2 on Sunday.

And Zidane highlighted his side’s response from losing a thrilling El Clasico 3-2 to Barca with the last kick of the ball last month by winning their last six league games as the key to the title.

“The last six games, but for sure the last three have been key,” added the Frenchman.

“To win 4-1 at home (against Sevilla), 4-1 away (at Celta) and then 2-0 today is spectacular.”

Pogba sends grieving Man Utd to emotional Europa triumph

May 25, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Paul Pogba dedicated victory to the victims of this week’s Manchester terror attack after propelling Manchester United towards a 2-0 victory over Ajax in Wednesday’s Europa League final.

Manchester United

A night that began with a moment of silence, then applause, in memory of the 22 people who died at Manchester Arena on Monday ended with United completing their trophy collection through goals from Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

Reminders of the attack were everywhere at Stockholm’s Friends Arena, from United’s black armbands to the chants of “Manchester!” from their fans, while Pogba, too, was grieving, following the recent death of his father.

“We played for the people who died,” Pogba told BT Sport.

“These things are terrible all over the world, in London and in Paris. We went out focused to win and we won for Manchester and the country.”

Victory enabled United manager Jose Mourinho, who said prior to the game that he and his players were struggling not to think about the tragedy, to bring his maiden Old Trafford season to a successful conclusion.

He had already guided United to glory in the League Cup and despite a sixth-place finish in the Premier League, success in the Europa League means his side will return to the Champions League next season.

“It is the end of a very difficult season. But a very very good season,” Mourinho said.

“There are lots of poets in football, but poets don’t win many titles. We knew where we were better than them and we exploited their weaknesses.”

United became only the fifth club — after Juventus, Ajax, Bayern Munich and Chelsea — to have won the Champions League, the Europa League and the now defunct European Cup Winners’ Cup.

Mourinho, a UEFA Cup winner with Porto in 2003 and two-time European champion, has now won all four of the major European finals he has contested.

Ajax were appearing in their first continental showpiece match since the 1996 Champions League decider and fielded a team with an average age of 22 years and 282 days — the youngest to have ever started a major European final.

Peter Bosz’s effervescent team caused United some uncomfortable moments, but without ever threatening to pull off an upset.

“Obviously both sides were affected (by the attack in Manchester), but once you play the final, for that moment you forget it,” said Bosz.

“I’m disappointed because you play finals to win them. We didn’t. I haven’t see the Ajax that I’m used to, which means good football, high pressing and being dominant.

“High pressing was difficult because Man United only played long balls and didn’t take any risks in the build-up. I think it was a boring game.”

Denied a glorious homecoming by a serious knee injury, United’s Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic was present instead as a spectator to see his current side take on the team where he made his name.

Pogba put a volley fractionally wide in the first minute and in the 18th minute he found the target, albeit with a helping hand.

From Marouane Fellaini’s lay-off, the French midfielder let fly with a left-foot shot that flicked off Davinson Sanchez’s left foot and looped past Ajax’s helplessly wrong-footed goalkeeper Andre Onana.

It was the biggest return yet on United’s world-record £89.3 million ($115.8 million, 103.2 million euros) investment in Pogba, who celebrated by pointing to the sky.

Moments later, Antonio Valencia stung Onana’s palms after a raid down the United right.

The English side then took their foot off the pedal, enabling Ajax to start finding space in dangerous areas, but within three minutes of kick-off in the second half they had tightened their grip on the game.

Juan Mata’s corner from the right was headed down by Chris Smalling and with his back to goal, Mkhitaryan held off Joel Veltman to flick the bouncing ball past Onana and claim his sixth goal in the competition.

Onana was called upon to field a header from Fellaini and United goalkeeper Sergio Romero saved from substitute Donny van de Beek.

But there was little to worry United’s fans, who continued to defiantly chant the name of their grief-stricken city as the final whistle neared.

Mourinho says Manchester attack victims in United’s ‘minds and hearts’

May 23, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Jose Mourinho said the victims of a deadly bomb attack in Manchester were in the “minds and hearts” of his squad as Man United prepared for Wednesday’s Europa League final against Ajax in Stockholm.

Manchester United players and staff stand for a minute of silence during training honouring the people killed and wounded in an explosion at Manchester Arena

Britain’s deadliest attack for 12 years saw 22 people killed, including children, and 59 injured when a bomb went off at a concert by US pop star Ariana Grande at the Manchester Arena on Monday.

“We’re all very sad about the tragic events last night; we can’t take out of our minds & hearts the victims & their families,” said Mourinho in comments posted on United’s Twitter feed on Tuesday.

“We have a job to do & will fly to Sweden to do that job. It’s a pity we cannot fly with the happiness we always have before a big game.”

Mourinho, who only joined United last year, added: “I know, even during my short time here, that the people of Manchester will pull together as one.”

The Portuguese boss’s Twitter comments were set to be his only public statement of the day after United had earlier announced they were cancelling Tuesday’s scheduled pre-match press conference in Stockholm.

“Due to the tragic events in Manchester last night and the effect that this has had on everyone here at our club and within our city, we have decided to cancel this evening’s pre-match press conference in Stockholm,” United said in a statement.

“We are sure that, in the circumstances, you will all understand our position on this matter.

“Our thoughts are with the victims at this terribly difficult time.”

Four-goal Kane eyes golden boot after crushing Leicester

May 19, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Harry Kane staked his claim to finish as the Premier League’s top scorer with a scintillating four-goal blast in Tottenham’s 6-1 demolition of Leicester on Thursday.

Kane

Although Tottenham were unable to overhaul champions Chelsea in the title race, Mauricio Pochettino’s vibrant young side look certain to make a renewed challenge next term and Kane is the figurehead of that bright future.

Kane is hunting the league’s golden boot and the England striker was at his predatory best as he plundered the Leicester defence four times to move to the top of the scoring charts with 26 goals.

Everton’s Romelu Lukaku is second on 24 goals but Kane is well on course to nail down the goalscoring prize heading into Tottenham’s final fixture at Hull on Sunday.

South Korea’s Son Heung-Min scored twice for Tottenham, who swept to their 11th win in their last 12 league games after Leicester’s Ben Chilwell briefly reduced the deficit in the second half.

Tottenham, already guaranteed to finish second, now have more points than Leicester won the league with last season, but if Pochettino’s players were frustrated at falling short in the title race, they haven’t let it show.

Foreshadowing their imminent goal spree, Tottenham started with a swagger and nearly took the lead when Kane’s pass picked out Son, only for Chilwell to deny him with a last-ditch block.

Son’s movement was too clever for Leicester again moments later as he turned quickly and shot over.

Despite Tottenham’s pressure, they were lucky not to fall behind when Jamie Vardy scythed through their defence.

Accelerating onto Riyad Mahrez’s deft pass, Vardy had only Hugo Lloris to beat, yet he wastefully blasted straight at the Tottenham goalkeeper.

Unfazed, Pochettino’s team should have taken the lead when Son collected Dele Alli’s defence-splitting pass and blazed over with just Kasper Schmeichel to beat.

Kane was a constant menace and he went close with a curling effort before underlining his predatory excellence in the 25th minute.

Jan Vertonghen’s long pass targeted a penetrating run from Son and, with Leicester caught flat-footed, the South Korean quickly picked out Kane, who arrived on cue to guide a clinical finish past Schmeichel from close-range.

Although Leicester had a penalty appeal rejected after Toby Alderweireld collided with Vardy, Tottenham were proving impossible to subdue and the visitors doubled their lead in the 36th minute.

Alli was the catalyst, taking possession on the edge of the area and impudently bypassing the Leicester defence with a sublime chipped pass to Son, whose half-volley lacked power but still had enough accuracy to beat Schmeichel.

Son’s 20th goal of the season was just reward for Tottenham’s dominance, but Leicester got one back in 59th minute.

Despite replays showing he was marginally offside, Vardy was allowed to sprint onto a through ball, prompting Lloris to rashly race well outside his area in a failed attempt to clear.

When Daniel Amartey poked the ball to Chilwell, the Leicester defender steadied himself before firing home via Eric Dier’s out-stretched foot.

Even that needless setback couldn’t ruffle Tottenham and they responded with a well-worked third goal four minutes later.

Alderweireld looped a cross into the Leicester area and Victor Wanyama nodded back towards Kane, who reacted quickest to head in from close-range.

Kane turned provider for Tottenham’s fourth goal in the 71st minute as his pass teed up Son to flash a fine finish past Schmeichel.

With Leicester’s minds turning to their post-season holidays, Kane had acres of space to pilage the hosts’ defence and he completed his hat-trick with a superb 20-yard strike in the 89th minute.

Kane wasn’t finished yet and he produced a carbon copy of his third goal in stoppage-time, driving home from the edge of the area to put the seal on his goalscoring masterclass.

Manchester City eye top four boost to mark Zabaleta farewell

May 15, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Pablo Zabaleta’s farewell is likely to garner much of the attention as Manchester City host West Bromwich Albion on Tuesday, but Pep Guardiola’s side still have work to do to secure a Champions League place.

Zabaleta

It was confirmed on Saturday that full-back Zabaleta will leave City at the end of this season after nine years at the club, with West Ham his likely destination.

The Premier League match against Albion will mark his final home appearance, and the club are planning tributes to mark the occasion.

Guardiola believes City need more players with Zabaleta’s commitment if they are to succeed in the future.

“It’s important to have players like Pablo in the team,” Guardiola said.

“Pablo is a real legend in what he has done in the club, he has helped with his team-mates at the club to make a step forward, to try to compete to qualify for the Champions League, sometimes to win the Premier League.

“That’s why Pablo Zabaleta, in these kind of things, is so, so important.”

Victory would just about ensure a top-four finish for Guardiola’s side, and may even make it mathematically certain if Arsenal fail to beat Sunderland on the same night.

Guardiola is in the process of shaping his squad for next season, and while Zabaleta’s future has been decided, those of City’s six other out-of-contract players remain in the balance.

The most high-profile of those players is midfielder Yaya Toure, who looked certain to leave after being dropped from the first-team squad earlier this season because of a fall-out with the manager.

Since resolving the dispute and being recalled in December, Toure has proved himself a valuable player for City, and even though he turned 34 on Saturday, it is clear that he still has plenty to offer.

City go into Tuesday’s match on the back of two successive wins, beating Crystal Palace 5-0 but following that up with a far less convincing 2-1 victory over Leicester on Saturday.

Guardiola must decide whether to recall his 31-goal leading scorer Sergio Aguero to the starting line-up, having caused something of a surprise by naming him only as a substitute on Saturday.

Aguero, who made the squad after recovering from a groin injury, did come on for the last 12 minutes, but Gabriel Jesus, signed in January from Palmeiras, is clearly the first-choice striker.

West Brom will head for Eastlands with some discouraging memories, having shipped 23 goals in their last seven visits.

But despite losing 1-0 to Chelsea on Friday in the game that saw the London club crowned champions, West Brom boss Tony Pulis believes optimism is high at The Hawthorns.

His side have two games to clinch the eighth place they have held for much of the season.

“It was a slow start to the season but we picked up and it’s been a fantastic journey and a fantastic ride,” said Pulis.

“What we’ve got to do now is try to get something from these two away games.

“The club had got a buzz about it that it hasn’t had for a long time, at least not since I’ve been at the club.

“There is much more optimism that the club hasn’t had since I’ve been here and people want to feel that and be part of it.

“And I’m hoping we can get maybe one or two players in that can give us a lift for next season because that’s important.”

Spurs await ‘special’ White Hart Lane farewell against United

May 14, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino expects a “special” day on Sunday when his side play Manchester United in the last game at White Hart Lane.

Spurs

With Chelsea having wrapped up the Premier League title by winning at West Bromwich Albion on Friday, Spurs’ farewell to their home of 118 years will now be the central focus of Sunday’s game.

“I hope Sunday will be the most special day in the last three seasons. It will be special for our fans, staff, players, people who love Tottenham,” Pochettino said.

“At the same time I am excited about the new stadium because the soul and the smell of White Hart Lane will keep there.

“When the new era and stadium arrive there will be different expectations, but, most important, always in our memory will be White Hart Lane, the soul and the smell.

“When you move to another area it’s so difficult, but now we are changing nothing because the new stadium will be in the same place as White Hart Lane and that is fantastic.”

Whatever the outcome, Sunday will be a deeply poignant occasion as Spurs say goodbye to a ground graced by such club greats as Jimmy Greaves, Danny Blanchflower, Steve Perryman, Glenn Hoddle and Paul Gascoigne.

A ceremony featuring figures from the club’s past will take place after the game and fans have been offered the chance to buy their seats for £50 ($64.40, 59 euros).

Demolition work on the Lane, Spurs’ home since 1899, will begin on Monday to make way for the club’s new 61,559-seater stadium, which will be completed in time for the 2018-19 campaign.

Spurs had hoped to bow out at the atmospheric old ground with a first league title since 1961, but although that objective has now disappeared, they still have a chance to make history.

Pochettino’s side are gunning for a 14th successive home league win, which would equal the club record, set over two seasons in 1987, and establish a new mark for consecutive home victories within the same campaign.

They can also go unbeaten at home in a league season for the first time since 1964-65.

United have unhappy recent memories of a farewell match at a venerable London venue.

Their Champions League hopes went up in smoke last season after they lost 3-2 to West Ham United in the final game at Upton Park.

United went 14 games without defeat at the Lane before last season’s 3-0 loss, but gone are the days when their former manager Alex Ferguson could dismiss Spurs’ threat with a disdainful: “Lads, it’s Tottenham.”

Spurs will finish above United this term for the third time in four seasons and Jose Mourinho’s side have little motivation to spoil the farewell party.

Four points off the top four, Mourinho has abandoned hope of qualifying for the Champions League via the league and is likely to rest players after Thursday’s Europa League semi-final success against Celta Vigo.

“In the Premier League we can only finish fifth or sixth, I think,” said Mourinho, whose team’s 25-game unbeaten run came to an end in north London last weekend following a 2-0 defeat at Arsenal.

“But obviously, like we did against Arsenal, we didn’t throw the match away. We played, we tried to win, we gave a difficult match to our opponent.

“That’s what we’re going to do. We’re not going to say that matches are not important.

“But we have one (the Europa League final) that is more important than others. The match on Sunday is important for us too.”

Marouane Fellaini, whose goal helped United secure a 2-1 aggregate win over Celta Vigo that set up a meeting with Ajax in the May 24 final, is unavailable due to a domestic suspension.

Pochettino has no new injuries concerns. Danny Rose is not yet match-fit despite having returned to training after injury, so Ben Davies is expected to continue at left-back.

Conte brushes aside Inter talk as Chelsea eye title

May 11, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Chelsea boss Antonio Conte dismissed persistent rumours linking him with a move to Inter Milan as his side prepared for a match at West Bromwich Albion on Friday that could give the Blues the Premier League title.

Chelsea

Victory at The Hawthorns will see Chelsea crowned champions in former Italy manager Conte’s first season in charge of the London club and leave them halfway to a domestic ‘Double’ ahead of their FA Cup final against capital rivals Arsenal.

Chelsea are seven points clear of second-placed Tottenham Hotspur, another London club, and need just three points from their final three league games this season to be sure of lifting the Premier League trophy.

Yet despite Conte’s excellent start at Stamford Bridge, there has been continued speculation he could return to his native Italy.

He has been linked with a move to Inter ever since the Italian giants sacked Stefano Pioli earlier this season.

“I have two years (remaining under) contract with Chelsea,” Conte said Thursday. “It’s logical when you start the work in a new club the will is to continue to work, to try to improve your work in many years. For sure, this is my will.

“In this moment for me or for my players, the most important thing is to be focused on the moment.”

He added: “Now the most important thing is to reach our target. The most important thing is to write the history of the club. It’s important now, don’t lose the concentration, be focused.

“My players are totally focused on the moment. We mustn’t forget that we must take three points to reach this target.”

Chelsea announced they had appointed Conte on a three-year contract in April 2016 and he took up his post at Stamford Bridge in July after managing Italy at Euro 2016.

The 47-year-old Conte is now on the verge of winning his fourth domestic title after capturing three successive Serie A crowns with Juventus before moving on to the Italy job.

He is widely credited with reviving Chelsea after the then champions suffered a dramatic slump in form during the 2015/16 that led the Blues, owned by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, to sack Jose Mourinho, now the manager of Manchester United.

Chelsea eventually recovered to finish tenth as 5,000/1 pre-season outsiders Leicester City completed a remarkable title triumph.

“This could be another big, big step for me,” Conte said. “In my career I enjoy to have this type of big challenge. I need to have this type of situation where you arrive and you have to work a lot and also to transform the situation in the right way.

“At the start of the season it wasn’t easy. We faced a lot of problems and we had to solve a lot of problems.

“When you finish 10th in the league it means that the problem is not only one, but there are a lot of problems. The problem is not only one person.

“I have to say thanks to my players because it’s not easy to adapt to a new method, new philosophy and also to work very hard, to change totally your work, if you compare the work this season to the past.”

Chelsea beat Middlesbrough on Monday to move seven points clear after Tottenham suffered a major slip-up in losing to West Ham on Friday.

Even if West Brom deny Chelsea victory on Friday, it will likely merely delay the inevitable given the Blues remaining league games are at home to mid-table Watford on Monday and against relegated Sunderland on May 21.

“It’s not important where you win, it’s important to win,” said Conte. “Then you will have the time to celebrate the win where you want.

“Tomorrow’s game is the most important game for us. It’s a final.

“I like to repeat: this is a good season. We want to become a great season.”

Atletico comeback falls short as Real reach final

May 11, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Real Madrid inflicted a fourth Champions League elimination on Atletico Madrid in as many years on Wednesday, losing their semi-final second leg 2-1 but progressing to the final 4-2 on aggregate.

Real Madrid

Atletico had threatened an incredible comeback, Saul Niguez’s powerful header and Antoine Griezmann’s penalty inside 16 minutes cutting Real’s aggregate lead to a solitary goal.

The hosts fed off a ferocious atmosphere for their final Champions League match at the Vicente Calderon before moving to the Wanda Metropolitano next season.

However, Isco’s away goal just before half-time settled Real’s nerves and left Atletico with too much to do to progress.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s first leg hat-trick ultimately proved decisive and Real will seek to become the first side to defend the trophy in the Champions League era when they face Juventus in the final in Cardiff on May 3.

“I am delighted to reach the final,” said Real boss Zinedine Zidane.

“It is a long road to get there and to do so two years in a row, you have to congratulate the squad.”

An already fierce rivalry between the Spanish giants has intensified in recent years by Real’s three Champions League victories over Atletico, including in the 2014 and 2016 finals.

However, Atletico’s players went a long way towards making amends for their meek display in the first leg eight days ago in a thrilling opening.

“The team showed once more why they have been competing at this level for so many years,” said Atletico coach Diego Simeone.

“Those first 20, 25 minutes will be in the history of the club.

“The atmosphere was one of those magical moments in the Calderon that will live in people’s memories forever.”

Real goalkeeper Keylor Navas denied Koke from close range and Fernando Torres headed over, before at the other end Jan Oblak made a brilliant save from Casemiro’s header.

Atletico got the goal they needed to get back into the tie 12 minutes in when Koke’s outswinging corner was met powerfully by Saul for his fourth Champions League goal of the season.

Just three minutes later Atletico truly believed they could pull off the most unlikely of comebacks when Fernando Torres was upended by Raphael Varane inside the box.

Griezmann had missed his previous two penalties against Real, including in last year’s Champions League final.

This time the French international found the net, albeit with a bit of fortune as Navas got a hand to his mishit spot-kick but couldn’t keep it out.

Fierce challenges then rained in from both sides as Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakır struggled to keep control, with five players booked inside the opening 37 minutes.

However, Real regained their composure to get the vital away goal they needed for some extra breathing space just before half-time.

Karim Benzema somehow escaped the attention of three Atletico defenders on the by-line and cut the ball back for Toni Kroos.

Oblak made another brilliant stop to deny the German, but Isco followed up from close range to bundle the ball home.

Ronaldo had scored eight times in his previous three Champions League appearances, however, the closest the World Player of the Year came to adding to his record 21 goals against Atletico was a driven free-kick at the start of the second half that was beaten away by Oblak.

Atletico had their chances to put the tie back on a knife-edge as Navas produced an incredible double save from Yannick Carrasco and Kevin Gameiro.

The Costa Rican then got down low to his right to turn behind Griezmann’s low volley and Gameiro failed to turn home another great opportunity from point-blank range.

A torrential thunder storm disrupted the final stages, but lightning has now struck four times for Atletico against Real and Zidane’s side will head to Cardiff seeking a 12th European Cup against his former club.

Herrera says fans can fire Manchester United to Europa League final

May 10, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Ander Herrera wants Manchester United’s supporters to turn Old Trafford into a cauldron when his side look to complete victory over Celta Vigo in Thursday’s Europa League semi-final return leg.

Herrera

Marcus Rashford’s sweet second-half free-kick brought United a 1-0 win in last week’s first leg, putting Jose Mourinho’s side within touching distance of the final in Stockholm on May 24.

But although United have gone 17 European home games without defeat, Celta have scored in all six of their Europa League away matches this season and Herrera says everyone in United red will have to be on their game.

“They have scored away in every game they’ve played in the competition so we have to be aware of that,” the Spanish midfielder said.

“They are a very good team, very dangerous when they play away and we will need our fans at home.

“I tell them we really need them to create a good atmosphere, a difficult atmosphere for the opponents, who can push us to be in the final. It’s not going to be easy.”

United have never won the Europa League and are bidding to reach a first continental final since their 3-1 loss to Barcelona at Wembley in the deciding match of the 2010-11 Champions League.

But while success in Europe’s second-tier competition will complete United’s collection of trophies, what motivates them above all is the place in next season’s Champions League that Europa League success will yield.

Mourinho has openly abandoned United’s hopes of securing the top-four finish in the Premier League that would open the door to the Champions League.

He made eight changes to his starting XI for last Sunday’s 2-0 defeat at Arsenal, which brought an end to United’s 25-game unbeaten run in the league and left them four points below fourth-place Manchester City.

Eric Bailly, Daley Blind, Antonio Valencia, Paul Pogba and Rashford are among the players expected to return for United on Thursday.

Celta need not look far for inspiration, having overcome a 1-0 home defeat against Shakhtar Donetsk to prevail 2-1 on aggregate in the last 32.

They can also call upon cup pedigree that saw them overcome Real Madrid in the quarter-finals of this season’s Copa del Rey, a year after they had accounted for Atletico Madrid at the same stage of the tournament.

“It is still close,” said Celta striker John Guidetti, who was formerly on the books of United’s cross-town rivals City.

“It is half-time. They are leading 1-0 and we have to go out and make the second half count.

“At the end of the day, if we go to Old Trafford and score the first goal, we are in the driving seat because if we score another one, they have to score two.”

Celta’s Europa League commitments have had a striking impact on their league form, largely due to coach Eduardo Berizzo’s determination to rest players.

Their 3-0 defeat at Malaga last weekend was their sixth loss in seven La Liga outings and they have won only two of their last 10 games in all competitions.

Peter Bosz’s dazzling young Ajax team are likely to be awaiting the victors in the final, having beat Lyon 4-1 in the home leg of their semi-final.

But Lyon have averaged over four goals per game in their Europa League home matches and coach Bruno Genesio believes his side’s 3-2 victory over Nantes on Sunday showed they are capable of pulling off a famous comeback.

“There’s an hour and a half to overcome our deficit,” he said.

“We’ll have to create chances and take them, but also remain calm and organised when we lose the ball.

“We have to remember that we scored three goals. And if we score three on Thursday, we could go through.”

Arsenal sink United to revive top-four bid, Liverpool held

May 8, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Arsenal are back in the hunt to qualify for the Champions League after Arsene Wenger finally got the better of Jose Mourinho in a 2-0 win over Manchester United, while Liverpool were held to a 0-0 draw by Southampton on Sunday.

Arsenal

Wenger had failed to win any of his previous 14 competitive clashes against Mourinho dating back to 2004, with his only victory over his old rival coming in the 2015 Community Shield when the Portuguese coach was in charge of Chelsea.

The Gunners boss brought an end to that frustrating streak at just the right time as goals from Granit Xhaka and Danny Welbeck improved Arsenal’s chances of salvaging a troubled season by finishing in the top four.

Sixth-placed Arsenal are now six points behind fourth-placed Manchester City with four games to play, while Pep Guardiola’s side have only three matches remaining.

Downplaying his rivalry with Mourinho, Wenger said: “It is not manager against manager.

“It was a patiently built win where in the first half you could see we were a bit nervous, but in the second half we took the edge off and scored the goals.”

Fifth-placed United remain four points behind City with three games left.

“Of course, we knew we were not coming in our maximum power. That’s a decision,” Mourinho said.

“We want to try to win the Europa League. It’s more important than finishing fourth.”

With Mourinho prioritising the Europa League semi-final second leg against Celta Vigo in midweek, United, who hold a 1-0 first-leg lead, fielded a much-changed side in north London.

United can qualify for the Champions League by winning the Europa League and they may well need to do exactly that after surrendering their 25-match unbeaten run in the Premier League.

The Gunners’ only route back into Europe’s elite club competition is via a top-four finish, so it wasn’t surprising that they played with more hunger than United.

Even so, they still needed a stroke of luck to open the scoring in the 54th minute.

Xhaka blasted a long-range strike that slammed into the back of United midfielder Ander Herrera, looping high in the air before dropping into the net just out of the reach of goalkeeper David de Gea.

If that was a fortuitous way to take the lead, Arsenal had no need to apologise for their superb second goal three minutes later.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain whipped over a teasing cross and when United defender Chris Smalling misjudged the flight of the ball, former United forward Welbeck was perfectly placed to bury his header past De Gea for just his second league goal this season.

Infamously labelled “a voyeur” and “a specialist in failure” by Mourinho in the past, this was a sweet moment for Wenger, but it won’t mean much unless Arsenal find a way to catch City.

At Anfield, Liverpool’s James Milner saw his penalty saved by Fraser Forster as his side wasted a chance to bolster their Champions League bid.

It was Milner’s first missed penalty since November 2009.

Liverpool’s second-half penalty arrived when Jack Stephens elbowed away the ball inside the area.

It was well spotted by referee Bobby Madley and although Milner’s spot-kick was right in the corner, Forster did well to get down and palm the effort away.

Liverpool are up to third, five points ahead of United, who have a game in hand.

Reds boss Jurgen Klopp had a curious excuse for Liverpool’s woes as he blamed the poor quality of the Anfield pitch.

“Nobody wants to hear it but the pitch was really dry today,” Klopp said.

“We gave all the water we had and after 15 minutes it was really dry – a lot of passes you could say why are they playing this?”

City boost top four bid, Hull remain in trouble

May 6, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Manchester City improved their prospects of qualifying for the Champions League with a 5-0 demolition of Crystal Palace, while relegation-threatened Hull suffered a damaging 2-0 defeat against Sunderland on Saturday.

Manchester City

Frustrated by damaging draws in their previous two games, City got back on track and climbed to third in the table after a stylish display inspired by David Silva’s return from injury at Eastlands.

Silva, out for a fortnight after suffering a blow to his knee during the FA Cup semi-final defeat by Arsenal, opened the scoring after two minutes.

Vincent Kompany doubled City’s lead in the 49th minute before Kevin De Bruyne’s long-range strike made it three 10 minutes later.

Raheem Sterling’s cool finish in the 82nd minute was followed by Nicolas Otamendi’s diving header in stoppage-time as City leapfrogged Liverpool on goal difference.

Pep Guardiola’s side also moved four points clear of fifth placed Manchester United as the battle to finish in the top four heats up.

United, who travel to Arsenal, and Liverpool, who host Southampton, are both in action on Sunday.

Palace’s third successive defeat left them six points above the relegation zone and still not certain to stay up.

At the KCOM Stadium, already relegated Sunderland won for the first time in 11 games to leave fourth bottom Hull just two points above the relegation zone.

Hull boss Marco Silva had been unbeaten in his previous 41 home league games, a record dating back to his time in charge of Portuguese side Estoril in 2014 and encompassing spells with Sporting Lisbon and Olympiakos.

Having taken 19 points from a possible 21 at home during his four months as Hull boss, it was a shock to the Portuguese coach when his side fell behind in the 69th minute.

John O’Shea flicked on a corner and Billy Jones launched into a diving header that flashed past Eldin Jakupovic.

Abel Hernandez was denied an equaliser by Jordan Pickford’s superb save and Jermain Defoe steered in from an offside position to add to Hull’s misery two minutes into stoppage-time.

If third bottom Swansea beat Everton later on Saturday, then Hull will drop into the bottom three with only two games remaining.

Bournemouth secured their top-flight status for another year after a 2-2 draw against Stoke at Dean Court.

When a Stoke corner curled into the penalty area in the 33rd minute, Bournemouth’s France Under-20 international Lys Mousset, making his first Premier League start, glanced the ball into his own net, giving the visitors their first away league goal in more than 10 hours.

Junior Stanislas equalised for Bournemouth in the 62nd minute before Stoke’s Mame Biram Diouf bundled in his first goal for 12 months in the 73rd minute.

Eddie Howe’s side rescued their priceless point thanks to an 81st minute own goal from Stoke defender Ryan Shawcross.

Burnley were made to wait to confirm their survival after being held to a 2-2 draw by West Bromwich Albion at Turf Moor.

The hosts, seven points above the bottom three, went ahead after 56 minutes when Wales forward Sam Vokes swept home.

Albion striker Salomon Rondon equalised 10 minutes later and Craig Dawson, on his 27th birthday, headed the visitors in front in the 78th minute.

Vokes struck again with just four minutes left, heading in after Albion goalkeeper Ben Foster misjudged Robbie Brady’s cross.

Leicester piled pressure on under-fire Watford manager Walter Mazzarri with a 3-0 win at the King Power Stadium.

Mazzarri is reportedly fighting to save his job after a disappointing first season in charge and Leicester took the lead in the 38th minute through Nigeria midfielder Wilfred Ndidi.

Riyad Mahrez doubled Leicester’s advantage in the 58th minute and Marc Albrighton’s stoppage-time strike condemned 15th placed Watford to a third defeat in their last four games.

Wenger ready to make peace with Mourinho

May 4, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger says he is prepared to bury the hatchet with old foe Jose Mourinho ahead of Sunday’s home game with Manchester United.

Jose Mourinho

Wenger regularly clashed with Mourinho during the Portuguese’s two stints as Chelsea manager, the rivalry spilling over into a touchline shoving match during an October 2014 game at Stamford Bridge.

The pair resume hostilities at the Emirates Stadium with their sides competing for a place in the Premier League top four.

Asked if peace could be made with United manager Mourinho, Wenger told reporters: “I am open always in life for everything, you know, for peace.

“But what is important when you are a competitor is that you give absolutely everything to win the next game.”

Wenger, who has never beaten Mourinho in the league, was reminded of his relationship with former United manager Alex Ferguson, which shed its initial spikiness to become corial.

“My relationship with Ferguson mellowed, yes. We have respect,” Wenger said.

“I think I try to respect everybody and I do not want to make a case of any person. I think it is important that I focus on my own team, the performance of my team and forget all the rest.”

Arsenal approach the weekend in sixth place in the table, five points below United and six behind Manchester City, with a game in hand on both.

“It just shows that everybody has moved up,” said Wenger, whose side will face Chelsea in the FA Cup final.

“The number of clubs that can fight at the top is bigger this season and the difference between the teams is smaller. As soon as you are not at your best, you can lose.”

With Sunday’s game sandwiched between the two legs of United’s Europa League semi-final against Celta Vigo, Mourinho has indicated he will rest players for the trip to north London.

Wenger said that if Arsenal fail to qualify for next season’s Champions League he will follow Mourinho’s lead by making the Europa League a priority.

“I take every competition seriously,” he said during Thursday’s pre-game press conference at Arsenal’s London Colney training base.

“The only thing I always did over the years was to use the League Cup to give chances to young players. We always treated all the other competitions seriously.”

Wenger is still to announce what he will do at the end of the season and has faced calls to stand down from disgruntled supporters.

United’s struggles in the post-Ferguson era have been held up as a warning to fans calling for Wenger to go, but he says his departure could prove to be a good thing.

“It can as well go better from when I leave one day,” said the Frenchman, who has been in charge at Arsenal since 1996.

“You know, when you are such a long time at a club like I am, like Ferguson was, it is a little bit like when you have children. You want them to be happy.

“Even when you are not there anymore, you want them to be happy.”

Reminded that he had vowed to make an announcement on his future in March or April, Wenger joked: “That means I was wrong!”

He added: “I don’t want to speak about my personal case any more.”

Wenger revealed midfielder Granit Xhaka is likely to miss Sunday’s game after taking a kick to the calf in last weekend’s 2-0 defeat at derby rivals Tottenham Hotspur.

Man Utd’s Ibrahimovic ‘fixed’ by knee surgery

May 3, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Manchester United striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been “fixed” and feels “stronger” after undergoing knee surgery in the United States, he said on Tuesday.

Zlatan

“Fixed, done and stronger,” Ibrahimovic posted on his official Instagram account, accompanied by a photograph showing white medical wristbands around his two wrists.

“Once again thank you for the support. We will enjoy my game together soon.”

Ibrahimovic, 35, faces a long period of rehabilitation after sustaining ligament damage in his right knee during United’s Europa League quarter-final win against Anderlecht last month.

With his United contract due to expire at the end of the season, his future at the club is in doubt.

United wrote on Twitter: “Good news from Zlatan’s team that he has undergone successful knee surgery.”

In a statement released late on Monday, Ibrahimovic’s agent Mino Raiola said surgery in Pittsburgh had been “successful”.

Raiola added: “He will make a full recovery AND HAS NOT SUFFERED A CAREER-ENDING INJURY.”

Ibrahimovic was a stunning success in his first season at United, scoring 28 goals in 46 appearances and inspiring the team to victory over Southampton in the League Cup final.

Ronaldo hat-trick leaves Real on verge of final

May 3, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Cristiano Ronaldo proved Atletico Madrid’s Champions League destroyer once more with a hat-trick as Real Madrid took a commanding 3-0 semi-final, first leg lead on Tuesday.

Ronaldo

Ronaldo extended his lead as the all-time top scorer in Madrid derby matches by taking his tally to 21 and put Real firmly on course to defend their title in the final in Cardiff on June 3.

The Portuguese rewarded a bright Real start by heading home Casemiro’s deflected cross after just 10 minutes.

Ronaldo then smashed home from just inside the area and turned home Lucas Vazquez’s cross in the final 20 minutes as Real continued their domination of Atletico having eliminated them in the Champions League for the past three seasons.

“The team was tremendous. I scored the goals but the team was phenomenal from start to finish,” said Ronaldo.

The sides meet again for the second leg on May 10.

“We have a good advantage but the tie isn’t over yet,” added Ronaldo.

“Atletico are a good side and it is not a coincidence they are in the semi-finals again. We have to be concentrated next Wednesday.”

Atletico boss Diego Simeone, meanwhile, told his side to forget their latest derby demolition and hope for a miracle at the last European match at their Vicente Calderon stadium next week.

“We need to forget about this game,” said the Argentine.

“It seems impossible, but it is football and football has these unexpected things that make it marvellous.

“Until the last drip of hope is gone, we will give it everything we have.”

Real needed a stoppage time equaliser en route to beating Atletico in the 2014 final, scored a late winner in the quarter-finals a year later and edged last season’s final between the two on a penalty shootout.

However, there was far more a gulf between the sides this time round.

Real piled on the pain in the opening stages for the 4,000 visiting away fans and could have killed the tie in the opening half hour.

Atletico were handed a lucky escape on seven minutes when Jan Oblak parried Dani Carvajal’s effort at the end of a careering run and the Slovenian recovered to also turn behind Karim Benzema’s follow-up effort.

There was no let off three minutes later, though, as Atletico failed to clear a corner and Casemiro’s bouncing cross looped up for Ronaldo to power home a header.

Oblak kept Atletico alive in the moments that followed with a brilliant save from Raphael Varane’s header and more comfortable stop from Isco.

However, at the other end, Keylor Navas rescued Real from conceding a vital away goal when he got a touch on the ball as Kevin Gameiro tried to round him when clean through on goal.

The majority of the efforts continued to rain down on Oblak’s goal as Luka Modric drilled a shot from the edge of the box inches wide.

And Benzema then acrobatically turned a Ronaldo cross just over the bar.

The only negative news of the night for Real was an injury to right-back Dani Carvajal just before half-time as he pulled up with a muscle problem that looks set to keep him out of the second leg.

Clear-cut chances were far harder to come by after half-time as Atletico toiled to create, whilst Real sat on their lead waiting for the chance to counter-attack.

However, once again in ties between these two, Real got the slice of luck to go with their extra quality.

The ball rebounded up perfectly off the heels of Filipe Luis for Ronaldo to blast high past Oblak.

And Ronaldo completed his second hat-trick against Atletico this season four minutes from time when Lucas Vazquez’s cutback picked out the four-time World Player of the Year to slot home from close range.

Suarez double keeps Barca level with Madrid

April 30, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Barcelona and Real Madrid remain locked together on 81 points at the top of La Liga after seeing off Espanyol and Valencia respectively on Saturday.

Suarez

Madrid maintain the edge as they have a game in hand but needed a winner four minutes from time from Marcelo to see off Valencia 2-1.

Luis Suarez scored twice as Barcelona gratefully pounced on a series of Espanyol errors to win the Catalan derby 3-0 and move top of the table thanks to their better head-to-head record over Real.

Jose Manuel Jurado was the Espanyol villain as he dragged well wide with easily the clearest chance of the first half.

The former Watford midfielder’s misplaced pass then teed up Suarez to end a five-game goal drought with a neat finish five minutes into the second period.

Lionel Messi didn’t add to his 49 goals this season but still played a vital role as he teed up Ivan Rakitic for Barca’s second 14 minutes from time.

And Suarez benefited from another defensive howler, this time from Aaron Martin, to slot home his second three minutes from the end.

At the Bernabeu, Marcelo’s late intervention saved Cristiano Ronaldo’s blushes despite the Portuguese setting another goalscoring record as he failed to beat Valencia goalkeeper Diego Alves from the penalty spot for the third time in four attempts.

Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane recalled eight of the side that started last weekend’s 3-2 Clasico defeat to Barcelona and had been rested for a 6-2 thrashing of Deportivo la Coruna in midweek.

However, the habitual first team nearly got off to the worst possible start when Santi Mina hit the post inside the first minute.

But Ronaldo eased Real nerves as he planted Dani Carvajal’s cross into the far corner in characteristic fashion on 27 minutes.

That goal took Ronaldo’s tally in league football to 367 goals to surpass legendary English striker Jimmy Greaves across Europe’s top divisions.

However, even the four-time world player of the year struggles to beat Alves from the spot as the Brazilian made his sixth penalty save of the season when he dived low to his left to deny Ronaldo early in the second half.

That miss looked costly when Dani Parejo’s brilliant free-kick set up a grandstand finish eight minute from time.

Yet, for the seventh time in La Liga this season, Madrid struck as Marcelo cut inside onto his weaker right foot to fire across and past the helpless Alves to joyous scenes of relief at the Santiago Bernabeu.

“It is true that we were in a comfort zone for 30 minutes, the fans were the same,” said Zidane.

“After Valencia scored they started to push the players on once more and it was a completely different match.

“We know we are going to have to suffer until the end of the season.”

Next up for Real is a Champions League semi-final first leg on Tuesday at home to a Atletico Madrid side full of confidence after they thumped Las Palmas 5-0 to move three points clear of Sevilla in third.

Atletico struck three times in the first 18 minutes in the Canary Islands as Kevin Gameiro netted a double either side of Saul Niguez’s header.

Kevin-Prince Boateng was then sent off for Las Palmas and Atletico made their man advantage count with further goals from Thomas Partey and Fernando Torres.

Tony Adams’s Granada were relegated after they lost for the fourth straight game since the Englishman took charge, going down 2-1 at Real Sociedad.

Meanwhile, Levante sealed promotion back to La Liga with a 1-0 win over Real Oviedo.

Man Utd boss Mourinho sets sights on Liverpool and Arsenal

April 28, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Jose Mourinho identified Liverpool and Arsenal as Manchester United’s chief rivals for Champions League qualification following his side’s 0-0 draw at fellow top-four contenders Manchester City.

Mourinho

Thursday’s stalemate at the Etihad Stadium left United just a point below local foes City, who occupy the Premier League’s fourth and final Champions League qualifying berth.

But Mourinho believes Liverpool, two points above United in third having played a game more, and Arsenal, four points below them having played a game less, are now their principal rivals.

“I think Man City is going to finish top four,” the United manager said.

“The matches they have to play, I see them doing that. I think it’s between us, Arsenal and Liverpool.”

While United’s run-in features successive trips to Arsenal and second-place Tottenham Hotspur, City’s is more benign, a home game with eighth-place West Bromwich Albion their most arduous test.

United are also besieged by injuries and will now be without midfielder Marouane Fellaini for three games after he was shown an 84th-minute red card for headbutting Sergio Aguero.

Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo, Paul Pogba, Juan Mata and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are all sidelined and Timothy Fosu-Mensah picked up an injury after coming on in place of Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

With a two-legged Europa League semi-final against Celta Vigo also looming on United’s horizon, Mourinho admitted his squad is being stretched to its limits.

“We have played 18 more matches than Liverpool,” said the Portuguese, who side equalled the club record of 24 successive top-flight games without defeat.

“Eighteen more matches is like half of a Premier League, almost. Eighteen matches are many miles in the players’ legs. So if you can say that, it’s an unfair fight.

“But we are going for that. We have the semi-final on Thursday. We have a match (at home to Swansea City) Sunday, 12 o’clock.

“We lost two more players today, Fellaini and Timo Mensah, because he has also an important injury in the last action of the game.

“I don’t think we (will) recover any of the others. But we go for it, we fight.

“Twenty-four matches in the Premier League is a lot. The guys have an amazing spirit and here we go again, Sunday.”

Mourinho suggested Aguero’s exaggerated reaction to Fellaini’s lowered forehead had influenced referee Martin Atkinson’s decision to send him off.

“I saw Aguero in the tunnel and no broken nose, no broken head,” Mourinho said.

“His face is nice as always. If Sergio doesn’t go to the floor, for sure it’s not a red card.”

City manager Pep Guardiola refused to be drawn on the incident, saying: “Next question. I don’t want to talk about the decisions of the referee.”

City dominated the game, with Aguero volleying against the post in the ninth minute and fit-again substitute Gabriel Jesus seeing a stoppage-time header ruled out for offside.

Guardiola said City’s ongoing struggles in front of goal meant their run-in would be far from straightforward.

“The battle’s always to win the game and be third,” he said.

“But it’s still in our hands. We have five games left — three at home, two away — when every game will be a battle like today.

“Because considering our average in chances created and chances scored, it’s lower all the season. That’s why we have to fight a lot to win the game.

“Now Middlesbrough’s playing for relegation. Then Leicester, Crystal Palace, able to win at Anfield, at Stamford Bridge, easy (win) against Arsenal at home.

“West Bromwich Albion, I admire a person like Tony Pulis. It will be tough to the last moment, but I want to assure we are going to try to play the way we’ve played all season.”

City goalkeeper Claudio Bravo is due to undergo tests on Friday after being stretchered off with a calf injury late in the second half.

Guardiola expects him to miss Sunday’s home game with second-bottom Middlesbrough.

Madrid hit Deportivo for six, Barca relegate Osasuna

April 27, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Real Madrid again made light of the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo as they crushed Deportivo la Coruna 6-2 to maintain the upper hand in the La Liga title race on Wednesday.

Real Madrid

Madrid and Barcelona are locked on 78 points at the top of the table, but Real have a game in hand over their title rivals.

Barca remain top thanks to their better head-to-head record as Lionel Messi struck twice to relegate Osasuna in a 7-1 thrashing.

Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane made nine changes in all from the side that lost 3-2 to Barca on Sunday to reignite the title race.

Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and the injured Gareth Bale were left out the Madrid squad for a third straight away league game, but again their absence wasn’t missed.

“It is the hardest job for a coach. When they play like they did today and then maybe they won’t play in the next game,” said Zidane.

“We know I have a phenomenal group of players and all of them are ready for the challenge between now and the end of the season.”

Alvaro Morata smashed home at the near post to give the visitors the perfect start after less than a minute.

James Rodriguez then added a second from Lucas Vazquez’s cross as Madrid threatened to run riot inside the first 20 minutes.

However, the European champions have now kept just one clean sheet in their last 15 games and their defence was breached once more when Florin Andone turned home Gael Kakuta’s mishit shot 10 minutes before half-time.

Vazquez, though, restored Real’s two-goal lead before half-time and Zidane’s men could even have reached double figures in a dominant second period.

Morata unselfishly teed up Rodriguez for his second of the night before Isco sealed a stunning individual display by smashing home 13 minutes from time.

Joselu got another goal back for Deportivo with a fine looping header, but fittingly Real had the final say when Casemiro’s piledriver slipped under Deportivo ‘keeper Przemyslaw Tyton.

At the Camp Nou, Barca fans paid homage to Messi’s brilliance against Real in scoring the winner and his 500th goal for the club with the last kick of the game in Sunday’s El Clasico.

The five-time World Player of the Year responded by opening the scoring as he pounced on an error in the Osasuna defence to stroll through on goal and lift the ball over the advancing Salvatore Sirigu.

Andre Gomes has been the scapegoat for many of Barca’s most disappointing defeats this season.

But the Portuguese had arguably his best night in a Barca shirt as he drilled home Ivan Rakitic’s cross to make it 2-0 on the half hour.

“We had the chance to use a lot of players that have played fewer minutes,” said Barca boss Luis Enrique.

“It is a game that boosts those individuals, the team as a whole and gives us hope for the end of the season.”

Roberto Torres’s free-kick briefly brought Osasuna back into the game three minutes into the second half.

Barca, though, simply went through the gears with a four-goal burst in 10 devastating minutes.

Firstly, Gomes slotted home his second of the night after Gerard Pique’s initial effort came back off the post.

Messi then curled in his 49th goal in 47 appearances this season from the edge of the area.

The Argentine instantly made way for 19-year-old Carles Alena to keep him fresh for Saturday’s Catalan derby at Espanyol.

Paco Alcacer also grabbed a double for Barca’s fifth and seventh.

And in between times Javier Mascherano bagged his first goal in 319 Barca appearances by blasting home from the penalty spot.

Osasuna’s relegation was confirmed after Leganes beat Las Palmas 3-0 to move six points clear of the drop zone.

And Real Sociedad boosted their chances of qualifying for the Europa League with a 3-2 win at Valencia.

Man Utd drumbeat booms for flagging Guardiola

April 27, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Jose Mourinho has an opportunity to score a seismic victory over his old foe Pep Guardiola when his Manchester United side visit misfiring Manchester City on Thursday.

Manchester-United

Guardiola oversaw a one-sided 2-1 win when he and Mourinho resumed hostilities in September and was generally felt to have made a bigger impact than the Portuguese in the season’s early months.

But having been condemned to a trophy-free first campaign at City by Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final loss to Arsenal, Guardiola will lose his hold on a top-four place if United prevail at the Etihad Stadium.

“If we finish fifth and they finish sixth and we are above them, it means nothing,” Mourinho said on Wednesday.

“If they finish third and we finish fourth, they are above us, but it means a lot.

“This is not about Pep, this is not about City; it is about fighting for objectives. We want to play Champions League football and we still have two doors open.”

Mourinho was alluding to the fact United can also qualify for the Champions League by winning the Europa League, ahead of their two-legged semi-final against Celta Vigo next month.

But victory on Thursday would help to shut off City’s only path to Europe’s top club competition.

It would also raise the prospect of United finishing above City for the first time since 2013 and provide proof that Mourinho has made a quicker start to life in Manchester than Guardiola.

United have struggled for fluency this season, drawing no fewer than 12 games, and spent four months grimly locked in sixth place in the table.

As the days grow longer, however, the prospects of a successful end to the season appear to be getting brighter.

Their stunning 2-0 ambush of league leaders Chelsea showed they are a match for anyone and they are seeking to equal a club record by going 24 top-flight games unbeaten.

Fatigue aside, the only dark cloud on United’s horizon is injuries.

Marcos Rojo and top scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic have been ruled out for the rest of the season, while Paul Pogba will miss Thursday’s game with a muscular problem sustained during Sunday’s 2-0 win at Burnley.

Centre-backs Chris Smalling and Phil Jones remain sidelined, along with Juan Mata, who scored the winner when the teams met at Old Trafford in the League Cup fourth round in October.

Ibrahimovic’s injury has opened the door for Marcus Rashford, who netted the game’s only goal when United last visited the Etihad in March 2016.

Anthony Martial will also hope to start after scoring one goal and making the other for Wayne Rooney at Burnley.

Mourinho and Guardiola had a sulphurous rivalry during their time at the helms of Real Madrid and Barcelona, but Guardiola says their relationship is a courteous one.

“We are neighbours, but no,” the Catalan said when asked if he and Mourinho had ever bumped into each other in Salford, where they both live.

“When we see each other, (it’s) ‘Hi, hi.'”

Guardiola says David Silva is a “real, real doubt” after the Spanish schemer sustaining a hamstring injury during City’s 2-1 loss to Arsenal at Wembley.

But he had more positive news about Sergio Aguero, who trained on Wednesday after picking up a knock against Arsenal.

John Stones, Bacary Sagna and Fernandinho are also injury doubts, but January signing Gabriel Jesus could feature following his return from a broken foot.

Mourinho said it would be “naive” for any rival to think United will be unduly diminished by their injuries and Guardiola concurred.

“Ibra is a great player, but they also have lots of good players like Jesse Lingard, Ashley Young and Marcus Rashford and they find spaces between the lines,” he said.

“They are good rivals, with good quality, in good form and have a big series without defeat in the Premier League. I’m looking forward to the game.”

Conte lauds Chelsea for passing Saints test

April 26, 2017 · Leave a Comment 

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Chelsea manager Antonio Conte said his side had taken “a big psychological step” after they defeated Southampton 4-2 to move seven points clear at the Premier League summit.

Conte

Chelsea’s recent 2-0 loss at Manchester United allowed closest rivals Tottenham Hotspur to trim their advantage to four points.

But they beat Tottenham 4-2 in the FA Cup semi-finals on Saturday before overcoming Southampton by the same scoreline on Tuesday to turn up the heat on Spurs, who visit Crystal Palace on Wednesday.

“I think we passed a big, big step,” Conte told reporters at Stamford Bridge.

“A big psychological step after the defeat against United. Because against United we lost three points and then you had to prepare (for) a semi-final against Tottenham.

“We reached the final in the FA Cup, which is a great incentive for us. But the other competition, the league, is totally open.

“But I think we are ready to fight until the end. Then we must be proud for our job, for what we are doing this season.”

Diego Costa was Chelsea’s match-winner against Southampton, scoring twice in the second half to take his Premier League tally to 51 goals in 85 appearances and end a seven-game scoring drought.

“It’s normal for the strikers that it is important to score. The goals are their life,” said Conte, whose side visit sixth-place Everton on Sunday.

“But, for me, I’ve always said I’ve been pleased with his commitment, his work for the team. He always worked for the team.

“Sometimes he was unlucky in different circumstances, but I was always confident about him. After the Tottenham game, I said I’m sure he’s keeping his goals for the final weeks of the season.

“Now he must continue. He’s very important for us. His confidence is very important for us. He scored two very beautiful goals, good combination and technique between him and his team-mates.”

Chelsea took a fifth-minute lead on a chilly evening in west London when Cesc Fabregas’s incisive pass found Costa, whose cut-back was swept home by Eden Hazard.

Oriol Romeu, playing against his former club, levelled mid-way through the first half when he stabbed home Manolo Gabbiadini’s cross-shot after Chelsea were found wanting at a corner.

But Gary Cahill restored Chelsea’s lead in first-half stoppage time, bravely heading in N’Golo Kante’s deep cross, before Costa took centre-stage in the second half.

He made it 3-1 eight minutes in, nodding in Fabregas’s cross, and added a late coup de grace by drilling home after exchanging passes with Hazard and substitute Pedro.

Ryan Bertrand, another Chelsea old boy, claimed a consolation with a stoppage-time header.

Southampton had been beaten 3-0 by Manchester City in their previous game, 10 days prior, and have failed to record a league victory over any of the teams in the top six this season.

But manager Claude Puel, whose side remain ninth, drew encouragement from the moments of discomfort the visitors managed to cause Chelsea.

“It was a better performance than against Manchester City,” said the Frenchman, whose team lost to Manchester United in the League Cup final earlier this year.

“But we conceded the goals in bad moments — after five minutes, just before half-time, just after half-time. This made the difference.”

Conte explained he had given club captain John Terry a late substitute cameo to “thank” him, following the centre-back’s recent announcement that he will leave the club at the season’s end.

Conte was typically animated on the touchline, at one point kicking a medical bag sitting beside the dug-out after Chelsea left Gabbiadini unmarked at a second-half corner.

“In this moment I wanted to kick the ball and I took the bag as a ball,” the Italian explained.

“Sometimes, believe me, I want to play. I want to play, to kick the ball. But I know that if I kick the ball, the referee will probably send me off.”

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.”

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